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What is the Largest Bird That Ever Lived?

Michael Anissimov
Updated May 21, 2024
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The Elephant Birds, members of genera Aepyornis and Mullerornis, are a group of extinct birds that includes the largest bird ever to walk the Earth, Aepyornis maximus, sometimes simply known as the Elephant Bird. The Elephant Bird went extinct around 1649, not long after Europeans first arrived at the island where they lived, Madagascar, off the southeast coast of Africa. The largest bird that ever lived was entirely flightless and ate large fruits.

The Elephant Bird was the largest bird not only in size but in weight. It reached more than 3.3 m (10 ft) in height, with a weight approaching 454 kg (1,000 lb), or half a ton. Only the Giant Moa of New Zealand (also extinct) was taller, but it was much more lightly built. The Giant Moa was the second largest bird in the world at the time. The Elephant Bird had a more massive build, and would have been impervious to the medium-sized predatory mammals of the island. The only predators that the Elephant Bird would have needed to fear would have been the Nile Crocodile and humans, which would have raided its nest for its gigantic eggs.

The Elephant Bird lived alongside the natives of Madagascar for over a thousand years, from around 200 AD to its extinction. It was encountered by Indian and Arab traders visiting the island in the 7th, 8th, and 9th centuries, who supported their claims by bringing home eggs with a circumference of three feet.

The world's largest bird was also known to Kublai Khan, ruler of the Mongol Empire, who ordered the explorer Marco Polo to investigate reports of giant birds on the island of Madagascar. This occurred in the late 1200s, but Polo never located the birds. The Elephant Bird is thought to have been the inspiration for the gigantic bird called the "Roc" in the tales of Sindbad and Marco Polo, though the Elephant Bird was an herbivore, unlike the carnivorous Roc.

The Elephant Bird was a type of bird called a ratite, with a body plan similar to present-day cassowaries, emus, and ostriches. These birds are all flightless and lack a breast "keel" that provides an anchoring point for wing muscles. Due to a lack of predators on the island, the Elephant Bird probably didn't have the same running ability of other ratites, and would have been a sitting duck for predators like dogs once they were introduced by the Europeans. The Elephant Bird lived so recently that occasionally its unfossilized eggs are found, sometimes containing a semi-preserved embryo.

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Michael Anissimov
By Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated All The Science contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism to his articles. An avid blogger, Michael is deeply passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. His professional experience includes work with the Methuselah Foundation, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and Lifeboat Foundation, further showcasing his commitment to scientific advancement.
Discussion Comments
By GlassAxe — On Dec 23, 2010

@ Cougars- The batrachotoxin found in the Pitohui are actually a cardio toxin and a neurotoxin. It can cause damage to the central and peripheral nervous system, as well as cause arrhythmia, ventricular fibrillation, and cardiac arrest. The toxin is very strong, about ten times that of the puffer fish, but it is not the strongest in the world. Botulinum toxin is a few hundred times more potent, being one of the most neurotoxic substances on the planet.

By cougars — On Dec 22, 2010

@ Fiorite- I read about that bird. A few people actually eat the bird as food.

The reason that the bird is so toxic is because the bird eats a certain type of beetle that has a powerful type of toxin that affects the nervous system. The toxin affects the osmosis of nerve cells. It opens the cells, allowing molecules in, but not allowing molecules to flow out, effectively exploding the nerves of anything foolish enough to eat them. The birds likely metabolize the toxin and excrete it through their skin and feathers. The poison is one of the strongest poisons known to man, stronger than strychnine. There is also no known antidote to the poison.

By Fiorite — On Dec 21, 2010

It seems like the most exotic places have the most exotic birds. I was just watching a show about a poisonous bird from Papua New Guinea. This bird is tiny, but everyone on the island is afraid of the bird. The bird is a hooded pitohui, and it harbors the same poison as poison dart frogs. The poison is in the skin, feathers, beak, and skin of the bird, and less than two micrograms can kill a person. This is the equivalent of two grains of salt. The poison will actually cause the hands to instantly go numb if the bird is handled. Inhaling the dust from the bird’s feathers can also cause severe respiratory damage and even death. It is the creepiest looking bird, with sleepy red eyes. This is one bird that I never wish to encounter. It is not a large bird, but it is by far one of the deadliest birds I can think of.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated All The Science contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology...
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