What on earth happened to the elephant bird?

Discover why the world wasn’t big enough for history’s largest ever birds

 

There are a number of animals today whose status is listed as ‘possibly extinct’ owing to the fact that we could have easily overlooked a pocket of survivors. Even in this day and age, ours is still a big world with plenty of places to hide. The elephant bird, however, is one creature that doesn’t fall into this category. This is because, as their name would suggest, elephant birds (aka the Aepyornithidae family) were no canaries. In fact, they would have dwarfed ostriches, standing as much as 0.5 metres (1.6 feet) taller and tipping the scales at up to four times their weight. Their eggs alone were the size of watermelons – the biggest ever recorded of any animal.

Along with fellow ratites (flightless birds), like the also extinct moa, elephant birds are believed to have emerged about 5 to 10 million years after the dinosaurs disappeared, filling an ecological niche left at the top of the food chain. Presiding over the African island of Madagascar, these herbivorous mega-birds had next to no predators to fear, save the odd crocodile and, of course, man.

The earliest documented sightings of these avian giants are by sailors in the 9th century. Famous explorer Marco Polo also mentions reports of huge birds on his travels in the 12th and 13th centuries. While elephant bird eggs had been prized by locals for millennia, it was only with Madagascar’s colonisation by European settlers in the 1500s that the death knell rang for these magnificent creatures. Hunting, theft of their eggs for both food and curio collections, destruction of their tropical forest home and potentially diseases borne by alien species such as rats all took their toll, leaving little hope for the future of this supersized species. Surprisingly, DNA testing in 2014 revealed that the elephant bird’s closest living relative is neither the ostrich nor the emu, as you might expect, but the much more diminutive kiwi. So the nearest you can get to seeing a live elephant bird today is not in Africa but, in fact, New Zealand.

Imagine Elephant Bird artwork
Like its modern day relative, the ostrich, the elephant bird’s wings were close to useless and it spent its entire life on the ground

Last seen…

Mid to late 17th century in Madagascar

Owing to their elusive nature and limited observation, no one knows exactly when elephant birds were wiped out. In around 1658, Étienne de Flacourt, a French governor and naturalist on Madagascar, wrote of a “large bird that haunts the Ampatres [a marshy region in the south of the island] and lays eggs like ostriches”, suggesting that at least a small population existed at that time. There is a journal entry dating from around a decade later that talks of a “terrible winged dragon” being shot by a merchant named Ruelle, but no sightings are reported after that. It’s generally accepted that by the dawn of the 18th century, no elephant birds remained.

 

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Image from www.flickr.com/photos/stuutje