Aepyornis (“mountain-sized bird”)
- Temporal range: Holocene
- Fossil location: Madagascar (subfossil remains)
- Known species: A. maximus, A. gracilis, A. hildebrandti, A. medius
In life Aepyornis and Mullerornis formed the family Aepyornithidae, also known as the elephant birds. This common name apparently originated from Marco Polo’s 1298 account of the roc, an eagle-like creature which he claimed was strong enough to “seize an elephant with its talons”. The roc legend may in fact have its origins in the misinterpretation of Aepyornis and other large ratites as the chicks of some gigantic bird of prey.
Estimated to have reached about 10 feet (3 m) and 880 pounds (400 kg), Aepyornis was the largest bird ever known to have existed. Its eggs were enormous as well, in some cases with a circumference of over 3 feet (1 m) and up to 13 inches (34 cm) in length, as well as a volume about 160 times greater than a chicken egg. Subfossil eggs belonging to Aepyornis have been found intact and containing the embryonic skeleton of the unborn bird.
Initially widespread throughout Madagascar, Aepyornis most likely died out as a result of human activity. A recent archaeological study found fragments ofeggshells among the remains of human fires, suggesting that the eggs regularly provided meals for entire families; it may have been this rather than extensive hunting of adult birds that ultimately drove Aepyornis to extinction. Transfer of hyperdiseases from human commensals such as chickens and guineafowl may also have played a part in dooming the giant ratite.
(Info sources: x x) (Photo sources: x x) (Credit: Art by Simona Prokešová)