• Weird History

10-Feet-Tall Elephant Birds Were The Biggest Birds On Earth, And May Have Coexisted With Humans

Meet the giant elephant bird of Madagascar, the largest bird in history. These long-lost birds once stood 10 feet tall, weighed as much as 1,700 pounds, and laid eggs 150 times the size of a chicken's. Like the ostrich and emu, the elephant bird was flightless. A study turned up a surprising fact about elephant birds: they were almost certainly blind. Similarly to other giant prehistoric animals, the elephant bird grew so large in part because it had no known foes. 

Add the elephant bird to the list of extinct birds that humans terminated; like the dodo, moa, and great auk, humans almost certainly caused the elephant bird's demise. But surprisingly, the bird may have initially coexisted with humans for thousands of years, leading scientists to wonder how the biggest bird on Earth managed to survive for so long.

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  • Photo: Monnier / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

    The Elephant Bird Dwarfed Humans At 10 Feet Tall

    The elephant bird holds the record for largest bird in history. Before they went away forever just centuries ago, the elephant bird stood around 10 feet tall and weighed an impressive 1,000 pounds. Ostriches, by comparison, the largest living birds today, might grow as tall as 9 feet, but weigh no more than 320 pounds - a fraction of the size of the elephant bird.

    In fact, some genera of the elephant bird grew even larger. Research from 2018 that involved re-structuring previously uncovered fossilized remains showed that a new genus of elephant bird may have weighed over 1,700 pounds. 

  • Photo: Acrocynus / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Scientists Are Still Unsure Why The Elephant Bird Was Nocturnal

    Elephant birds were almost certainly nocturnal, as a 2018 study proved. As co-author Christopher Torres explained, "A nocturnal lifestyle is often an evolutionary response either when it's too dangerous to come out during the day or when what you eat comes out at night." When the elephant bird began roaming Madagascar, however, it had no known foes. So why did the bird become nocturnal?

    Researchers believe the bird's preference for dark may have been inherited from an ancestor - perhaps one related to the kiwi. That ancestor may have evolved to become nocturnal, and the elephant bird simply continued the trend. Future research may shed more light on the bird's habits.

  • Photo: Ghedoghedo / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Elephant Bird Eggs Were 150 Times The Size Of Chicken Eggs

    The elephant bird wasn't just the biggest bird on Earth - they also had the biggest eggs. A single elephant bird egg could hold 150 chicken eggs. Around 40 remain in public museums and institutions. At the Buffalo Museum of Science, the intact elephant bird egg still contains a yolk sac, according to radiography. An egg at the National Geographic Society, meanwhile, includes an embryonic skeleton.

    When the elephant bird roamed Madagascar, the massive eggs likely attracted humans who pilfered elephant bird nests and helped eventually drive the bird to its end. Humans still covet the eggs today: in 2013, an elephant bird egg sold for $100,000 during a Christie's auction.

  • Photo: Alannis / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Scientists Completely Missed A Critical Fact About The Elephant Bird

    Until a study published in 2018, scientists believed the elephant bird roamed the jungles of Madagascar during the day. But the new research discovered a surprising fact: the massive birds were almost undoubtedly blind, and likely nocturnal. 

    Study co-author Christopher Torres explained how the new information upended over a hundred years of assumptions:

    The few studies that speculated on what their behavior was like explicitly assumed they were active during the day. Then, once we made the connection to nocturnality, we were blown away. It meant revising more than century's worth of attempts at reconstructing the elephant bird lifestyle.