Temporal range: Quaternary
|Aepyornis maximus skeleton and egg|
I. Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire
Aepyornis is a genus of aepyornithid, one of two genera of ratite birds endemic to Madagascar known as elephant birds. The species A. maximus weighed up to 400 kilograms (880 lb), and was the world's largest bird until its extinction, about 1000 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 some authors treating them all in just one species, A. maximus.
- Aepyornis gracilis Monnier, 1913
- Aepyornis hildebrandti Burckhardt, 1893
- Aepyornis maximus Hilaire, 1851
- Aepyornis medius Milne-Edwards & Grandidier, 1866
Like the cassowary, ostrich, rhea, emu and kiwi, Aepyornis was a ratite; it could not fly, and its breast bone had no keel. Because Madagascar and Africa separated before the ratite lineage arose, Aepyornis has been thought to have dispersed and become flightless and gigantic in situ. More recently, it has been deduced from DNA sequence comparisons that the closest living relatives of elephant birds are New Zealand kiwis, indicating that the ancestors of elephant birds dispersed to Madagascar from Australasia.
Aepyornis maximus is commonly known as the 'elephant bird', a term that apparently originated from Marco Polo's account of the rukh in 1298, although he was apparently referring to an eagle-like bird strong enough to "seize an elephant with its talons". Sightings of eggs of elephant birds by early sailors (e.g. text on the Fra Mauro map of 1467–69, if not attributable to ostriches) could also have been erroneously attributed to a giant raptor from Madagascar. The legend of the roc could also have originated from sightings of such a giant subfossil eagle related to the African crowned eagle, which has been described in the genus Stephanoaetus from Madagascar, being large enough to carry off large primates; today, lemurs still retain a fear of aerial predators such as these. Another might be the perception of ratites retaining neotenic features and thus being mistaken for enormous chicks of a presumably more massive bird.
Aepyornis, which was a giant, flightless ratite native to Madagascar, has been extinct since at least the 17th century. Aepyornis was one of the world's largest birds, believed to have been 3 metres (9.8 ft) tall and weighing 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.
Occasionally the subfossilized eggs are found intact. The National Geographic Society in Washington holds a specimen of an Aepyornis egg which was given to Luis Marden in 1967. The specimen is intact and contains an embryonic skeleton of the unborn bird. Another giant Aepyornis egg is on display at the Harvard Museum of Natural History in Cambridge, MA. A cast of the Aepyornis egg is preserved at the Grant Museum of Zoology at the University of London. The BBC television personality David Attenborough owns an almost complete fossilized eggshell, which he pieced together from fragments he collected on a visit to Madagascar.
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 (the blitzkrieg hypothesis). 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. There is archaeological evidence of Aepyornis from a radiocarbon-dated bone at 1880 +/- 70 BP (c. 120 AD) with signs of butchering, and on the basis of radiocarbon dating of shells, about 1000 BP (= c. 1000 AD). It is thought that Aepyornis is the Malagasy legendary extinct animal called the vorompatra (pronounced [vuˈrumpə̥ʈʂ]), Malagasy 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 Television 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.
H.G.Wells wrote a short story called "Aepyornis Island" (text of story here) in which a marooned sailor hatches an Aepyornis egg and lives with the bird, far larger than any recorded in history, for several years.
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