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Have you ever wondered what the biggest bird on our planet is? Maybe you already know the answer to this question — it’s the ostrich, at almost 9 feet tall.

However, this is not the biggest bird Earth has ever seen. There once existed a bird that stood 10 feet tall, with a much heavier and more robust body. This bird weighed about 1,600 lbs, while ostriches weigh about 300 lbs. This was the elephant bird of ancient Madagascar.

Elephant birds belonged to the ratite family. Ratites are all lacking a keel on their breastbone, rendering them flightless. The keel is an extension of the breastbone, which provides them with the necessary leverage for flight. In this group are several diverse birds, including ostriches, emus, and the elephant bird’s closest relative — the kiwi.

illustration/sketch of the elephant bird

It’s estimated that elephant birds went extinct sometime between 1000 and 1200 A.D. But the folklore surrounding this giant persisted for many years, so it’s hard to know for sure. Marco Polo even documented stories he’d heard of giant birds during his journey to Madagascar in the 13th century.

Early explorers that visited Madagascar also described an “eagle-like” bird — so large, it could lift an elephant into the sky. Which is precisely where the elephant bird got its name. However, it’s safe to say there was a hint of exaggeration to their story since this bird could not fly. Still, the name stuck.

As you can imagine, the largest bird on Earth was capable of producing quite an impressive egg. In fact, it is the largest egg scientists have ever found. For a bit of perspective — these eggs measured over a foot long, weighed about 22 lbs, with a liquid capacity of over 8 liters! That’s 160 times the volume of a chicken egg.

close up shot of a very large egg

Although there were rumors of the giant bird, European travelers in the 1800s were not yet fully convinced. That is, until they stumbled upon tons of these massive eggs in Madagascar.

Today, you can view elephant bird eggs in a number of museums around the world. A few locations where they’re on display include Massachusetts, Colorado, Turkey, the UK. In Washington D.C., The National Geographic Society owns an impressive specimen. Theirs is an intact egg containing the skeleton of the unhatched bird.

Even David Attenborough acquired one of these ginormous eggs. The fragments (which he later pieced together) were given to him while working on his BBC series Zoo Quest to Madagascar.

Little is known about the feathered giant’s behavior, but scientists have made speculations based on fossil analysis. For example, fossil remains show that the elephant bird’s optic lobes were reduced, suggesting it was nocturnal. Which would not come as a surprise, as its closest relative (kiwi) is also night active.

We also know that the elephant bird’s range was quite extensive, reaching from the northern to the southern tips of Madagascar. Eggshells and fossils have been found throughout the entire island.

Scenic shot of a landscape in Madagascar

Scientists theorize that this giant birdie wasn’t as threatening as you’d think. Instead of hunting down smaller creatures, evidence points to the bird as being frugivorous (having a fruit diet). Comparative studies of living ratites show that the elephant bird had a body perfectly adapted for a fruit diet.

The existence of elephant birds in Madagascar was a result of the mid-Cenozoic Australian ratite radiation. In other words, long after Gondwana split apart, the bird’s ancestors flew across the Indian Ocean to find their way to Madagascar. Upon arrival, the birds evolved into their giant size and eventually lost the ability to fly.

A combination of clues gives us an idea of how the bird went extinct. At this point, it’s assumed to have been caused by habitat destruction and hunting.

Eggshells have been discovered, manipulated by human hands, and used as bowls. There have also been shell fragments found near ancient fire remains. This suggests that humans regularly consumed the eggs. On top of this, signs of butchering and human tool marks have been observed on elephant bird bones dating back to 10,000 BCE.

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