The world’s largest ever bird was a 10-foot feathered creature which lived in Madagascar more than 1,000 years ago, it has emerged.
Named Vorombe titan – meaning ‘big bird’ in Greek and Malagasy – the 1,750-pound elephant bird was awarded the title by researchers from the Zoological Society of London.
The flightless birds became extinct around 1,000 years ago and may have been hunted to extinction by humans on the island.
A specimen of the bird described in 1894 was thought to be an unusually large example of a smaller species, Aepyornis maximus, but researchers now believe that V. titan was a separate genus.
Researchers believe the world’s largest ever bird was Vorombe titan, pictured in an artist’s impression, a 10-foot feathered creature which lived in Madagascar almost 2,000 years ago
Experts have spent decades poring over conflicting evidence and arguing about what was the largest bird that ever lived.
Now a new study of Madagascar’s elephant birds has ended the debate and handed the crown to V. titan.
Lead scientist Dr James Hansford said: ‘They would have towered over people.
‘They definitely couldn’t fly as they couldn’t have supported anywhere near their weight.
‘Elephant birds were the biggest of Madagascar’s megafauna and arguably one of the most important in the island’s evolutionary history – even more so than lemurs.
‘This is because large-bodied animals have an enormous impact on the wider ecosystem they live in via controlling vegetation through eating plants, spreading biomass and dispersing seeds through defecation.
‘Madagascar is still suffering the effects of the extinction of these birds today.’
V. titan is the 16th recognised species of elephant bird, now known to occupy three genera.
Left: bones from the giant bird Vorombe titan, which was previously believed to be an extremely large member of a different species but has now been classified as a genus in its own right. Right: an artist’s impression of the bird
The elephant bird was described in 1894 by the British scientist CW Andrews as Aepyornis titan – a larger species of Aepyornis maximus.
But a French rival of Andrews dismissed the discovery of titan as just an outsized maximus specimen, and for decades the debate remained deadlocked.
ZSL researchers said the shape and size of V. titan’s bones are so different from all other elephant birds that it deserved its own classification.
A close cousin of the now-extinct moa in New Zealand, the elephant bird belonged to the same family of flightless animals that today includes the kiwi, emu and ostrich.
Elephant birds became extinct around 1,000 years ago after a long period co-existing with early human inhabitants of Madagascar.
Its petrified eggs still fetch large sums at auction and it stars in HG Wells’ 1895 work Aepyornis Island.
Dr Hansford said: ‘You start to see large amounts of agricultural settlements and habitat change with burning of forests that seems to have driven all the megafauna in Madagascar, including the elephant bird, to extinction.’
Despite their powerful legs and fearsome talons they were peaceful vegetarians, living mainly on fruit.
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE ELEPHANT BIRD?
Elephant birds are an extinct family of flightless birds found only on the island of Madagascar and comprising the genera Aepyornis and Mullerornis.
The bird (pictured, left) was a terrifying creature that weighed a third of a tonne, stood 10ft (3m) tall and laid eggs big enough to make 50 omelettes.
The reasons for and timings of their extinctions remain unclear, although there are written accounts of elephant bird sightings on the island in the 17th century.
The famous explorer and traveller Marco Polo mentions very large birds in his accounts of his journeys to the East during the 12th–13th centuries.
These earlier accounts are today believed to describe elephant birds.
Aepyornis was at the time regarded as the world’s largest bird, weighing close to 400 kg (880 lb).
The egg volume can be up to 160 times greater than a chicken egg.