|Name Translation||Elephant Bird|
|Period||Pleistocene-Holocene epochs of the Cenozoic Era 2 million years ago-1600 AD|
|Length||3 metres (10 feet) tall|
Aepyornis is a genus of aepyornithid, one of two known extinct Malagasy ratite genera known as elephant birds. It was the worlds largest known bird until its unfortunate extinction many hundreds of years ago.
Aepyornis, which was a giant ratite native to Madagascar, has been extinct since at least the 17th century. Aepyornis was the world's largest known bird, believed to have been over 3 metres (10 ft) tall and weighing close to half a ton, about 400 kilograms (880 lb). Remains of Aepyornis adults and eggs have been found; in some cases the eggs have a circumference of over 1 meter (3.3 ft) and a length up to 34 centimetres (13 in). The egg volume is about 160 times greater than a chicken egg!
Like the cassowary, ostrich, rhea, emu and kiwi, Aepyornis was a ratite; it could not fly, and its breast bones had no keel. Because Madagascar and Africa separated too long ago for the ratite lineage, Aepyornis had been thought to have dispersed and become flightless and gigantic in situ. A land bridge from elsewhere in Gondwana to Madagascar for the elephant bird-ostrich lineage was probably available around 85 million years ago.
Four species are usually accepted in the genus Aepyornis today; A. hildebrandti, A. gracilis, A. medius and A. maximus, but the validity of some is disputed, with numerous authors treating them all in just one species, A. maximus.
- Aepyornis hildebrandti Burckhardt, 1893
- Aepyornis mulleri Milne-Edwards & Grandidier, 1894
- Aepyornis maximus Hilaire, 1851
- Aepyornis modestus Milne-Edwards & Grandidier, 1869
- Aepyornis ingens Milne-Edwards & Grandidier, 1894
- Aepyornis titan Andrews, 1894
- Aepyornis medius Milne-Edwards & Grandidier, 1866
- Aepyornis grandidieri Rowley, 1867
- Aepyornis cursor Milne-Edwards & Grandidier, 1894
- Aepyornis lentus Milne-Edwards & Grandidier, 1894
It is widely believed that the extinction of Aepyornis was an effect of human activity. The birds were initially widespread, occurring from the northern to the southern tip of Madagascar. One theory states that humans hunted the elephant birds to extinction in a very short time for such a large landmass. There is indeed evidence that they were killed. However, their eggs may have been the most vulnerable point in their life cycle. A recent archaeological study found fragments of eggshells among the remains of human fires, suggesting that the eggs regularly provided meals for entire families. The exact time period when they died out is also not certain; tales of these giant birds may have persisted for centuries in folk memory.
It is thought that Aepyornis is the Malagasy legendary extinct animal called the vorompatra, Malagasy language for "marsh bird" (vorom translates to bird). After many years of failed attempts, DNA molecules of Aepyornis eggs were successfully extracted by a group of international researchers and results were published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. It has also been suggested that the extinction was a secondary effect of human impact due to transfer of hyperdiseases from human commensals such as chickens and guineafowl. The bones of these domesticated fowl have been found in subfossil sites in the island (MacPhee and Marx, 1997: 188), such as Ambolisatra (Madagascar), where Mullerornis sp. and Aepyornis maximus have been reported.
David Attenborough in a BBC TV program transmitted in early 2011 said that "very few Aepyornis bones show signs of butchery, so likely there was a Malagasy native taboo against killing Aepyornis, and that is likely why Aepyornis survived so long after Man arrived there.". But that does not say anything about whether the natives took so many Aepyornis eggs that the species died out.