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Strike from the Sky


Air: Roc and Aepyornis

© AMNH / D. Finnin

What if birds grew to giant size?

Many stories tell of giant birds that swoop down from the sky to seize animals, sometimes even humans. Such stories are not entirely legend. Living birds such as eagles, hawks and falcons dart down to snatch snakes, fish, rabbits, and other mammals. Fossils show that thousands of years ago, large birds preyed on people, and in some remote areas, they remain a threat to small children. Many mythic creatures have supernatural powers, or combine features of different animals into one. But all it really takes to turn a bird into a mythic monster is to make it larger.



Aepyornis model

© AMNH / D. Finnin


Seven hundred years ago, Arab traders told of a bird so huge it could lift elephants into the sky. Sailors said it lived on an island off the southern coast of Africa. In fact, a giant bird called the Aepyornis once lived on the island of Madagascar, off the coast of Africa. Aepyornis is now extinct, but it was the largest bird that ever lived. It was called the elephant bird even though it couldn't really lift an elephant. In fact, it couldn't even fly. But its large eggs helped fuel the legend of the mythical Roc.

  • The extinct Aepyornis lived in Madagascar until about the 1500s and may once have been hunted by people.
  • More than three meters (10 feet) tall and weighed about half a ton.
  • Laid the largest eggs in the world eggs, at more than eight liters (two gallons).

The two greatest explorers of the 1200s and 1300s, Marco Polo from Italy, and Ibn Battuta, who was born in what is now Morocco, both wrote that the legendary Roc lived near Madagascar. Bones and eggs have since proved that a half-ton bird called Aepyornis really did live on the island, located off the southern coast of Africa. The nickname "elephant bird" also probably comes from the Roc story. Aepyornis could not have hunted elephants because it was too small and besides, no elephants live on Madagascar.


The largest eggs known to science are found on the island of Madagascar. In 1864, W. Winwood Reade wrote, "The existence of the Roc of Marco Polo and The Arabian Nights is now proved by the discovery of an immense egg in a semi-fossil state in Madagascar." In fact, the eggs belong to the extinct Aepyornis, not the Roc.


Haast's eagle talon

Photo: © AMNH Paleontology


Aepyornis is not the only giant bird to give rise to legends. The Maori people have long told of a giant eagle that once lived in New Zealand. Evidence such as bones and talons have proved the giant bird, now called Haast's eagle, was more than a myth. And unlike Aepyornis, it could fly. It had a wingspan of nearly three meters (10 feet) and preyed on moas, large flightless birds related to ostriches. Haast's eagle (Harpagornis moorei) lived until about AD 1500.

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