Vorompatra Lore

"Re-creating Madagascar's Giant Extinct Bird"

by Alexander Wetmore,
Research Associate, Smithsonian Institution

( National Geographic , Volume 132, Number 4; October, 1967: pp.488-493)

Walter Weber's Vorompatra

Stepping out of legend, the world's largest known bird comes to life in a scientific reconstruction. A half-ton male aepyornis guards his mate, unaware of an egg-hunting tribesman.

FROM A STUDY OF BONES in Paris and New York and perusal of the literature in several languages, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC's artist-naturalist Walter A. Weber and I have undertaken to show how Madagascar's extinct elephant bird, Aepyornis, may have looked when it walked the earth.

The word "walked" is used advisedly, for no matter what tales Sindbad the Sailor may have told about being borne off by a huge flying bird, aepyornis definitely could not have been guilty; it was as earthbound as the dodo. This fact, of course, was promptly recognized by scientists who studied the skeletal remains of the huge, heavy-legged bird of Madagascar.

skeleton & egg

Skeleton of aepyornis in the Museum of Natural History in Paris shows a piano-legged heavyweight nearly ten feet tall. The bird's massive foot and leg bones--three thick toes, a short tarsus, a heavy tibiotarsus and femur--suggest it ran no great distances. Shallow breastbone and tiny pronglike wings prove it could not fly.

FROM Les Aepyornis, BY L MONNIER, 1908

The first bones reached Europe 117 years ago [1850]1. When, over the decades, enough had accumulated to form a complete skeleton, scientists saw that the wing bones of this great bird were vestigial, amazingly tiny for so huge a creature. The two bones by which the wing was attached to the body, the scapula and coracoid, were fused into one, instead of being separate as in birds that fly. The upper wing bone, the humerus, was club-shaped and small--less than four inches long. Obviously the wing was merely a remnant.

The breastbone reveals further evidence of flightlessness. In flying birds this bone is longer than wide, with a strong keel for attachment of muscles. In aepyornis it is merely a flattened plate, broad but short, its length less than half its width.

Almost as incongruous as the undersized wings are the bird's heavy, elephantine legs. For our study we chose Aepyornis maximus (literally "largest tall bird"), the biggest of the several species. The incredible femur, or thighbone, of this ponderous bird is by far the largest bone I have ever seen. The tibiotarsus--in humans the shinbone--is also huge.

The lower joint, or tarsus, to which the toes are attached (in the painting the bare, scaly portion of the leg) is surprisingly short in proportion to the rest of the leg. This tells us that aepyornis was definitely not a distance runner like the slender-legged ostrich.

Indeed, one gets the impression of a musclebound and weightbound bird that could not run fast or far even when alarmed. Until the arrival of man, aepyornis probably had no major enemies. There were no large predatory animals except crocodiles. To this day the biggest land carnivore in Madagascar is only about the size of a large domestic cat.

scientist & artist

Scientist and artist collaborate for a study of the anatomy of great birds before re-creating the probable appearance of aepyornis. At the Smithsonian Institution ornithologist Dr. Alexander Wetmore, left, compares an ostrich femur with the much larger aepyornis femur for artist Walter A. Weber. The American Museum of Natural History in New York loaned the aepyornis bones.


The type of feathering is only conjectural, but we assume that it fell somewhere between the hairlike feathers of the cassowary and kiwi and the heavy plumes of the ostrich. The pygostyle, the last vertebra at the tip of the tail, shows by its relatively small size that the bird probably carried no large tail plumes.

Half-ton Male Stood Nearly 10 Feet Tall

All the large flightless birds have mainly black, white, or gray feathers. We have assumed a similar coloration, ascribing the black plumage of the male ostrich to aepyornis père and a lighter, grayish coat to his mate.

In summary, our study indicates a gigantic bird with tremendous elephant-style legs. A large male ostrich may be eight feet tall and weigh 300 pounds. This great elephant bird stood between nine and ten feet, and Dr. Dean Amadon of the American Museum of Natural History has calculated its probable weight as close to a thousand pounds.

The aepyornis, because of its unwieldiness and its lack of a hooked beak for tearing prey and talons for holding it, plainly was not a predatory creature. We assume that it was mainly a vegetarian, a grazer and cropper, able to reach with its long neck the lower branches of shrubs and trees.

Through the years I have had occasion to work closely with Mr. Weber, and I was glad to collaborate again as scientific adviser to this distinguished artist-naturalist, one of the world's foremost portrayers of animal life.

Thus the task of clothing the old bones continued until we had a living image of the biggest and strangest bird yet known to tread the earth.

The origin of these great birds is uncertain, but the long-held supposition is that they came from Africa. Madagascar is separated from the African mainland by more than 200 miles of ocean, and this separation is believed to date from Mesozoic times, which ended 60 million years ago. Fragments of fossil bone from Egyptian deposits of 30 to 40 million years ago have been identified as remains of primitive relatives of the aepyornis. If the ancestral birds were flightless, they may have arrived in Madagascar in late Cretaceous times, before the close of the Mesozoic era2.

A recent suggestion, to me less probable, was that the early ancestors still had functioning wings on which they flew to the island. There, free from active predators, they became terrestrial and changed slowly to the giant aepyornis of our illustration3.

These opposing ideas are merely theory. Our only certain information comes from the many aepyornis bones found on the island in deposits of Pleistocene and geologically recent age. From these, seven species--differing in form and size--have been named.

Science Sees an Aepyornis Embryo

Not until man arrived on the island, probably less than 2,000 years ago, was aepyornis apparently subjected to pressures that it was not fitted to meet. It seems likely that human encroachments, such as cutting down the forests and hunting down the birds and their eggs, brought decrease and final extinction, possibly near the beginning of the European period. But there is no definite record that the birds were seen in the flesh by European eyes.

the inside story

X-ray into antiquity exposes bones of an aepyornis embryo, about three-fourths developed, entombed within an eggshell more than a foot long. Forklike tarsal bones show developing toes. The longest bone is a tibiotarsus or shinbone; characteristic holes identify vertebrae. Scientists estimate that the egg, when fresh, weighed more than 20 pounds, equal to eight ostrich eggs. One of the largest ever found, the rarity came to the Society as a gift from Henry and Jean de Heaulme of Madagascar.


To our astonishment and gratification, the larger of the two eggs brought back from Madagascar by the GEOGRAPHIC's Luis Marden proved to contain the remains of a well-developed embryo. X-ray photographs clearly show bones of a chick, perhaps three-fourths developed. Stereoscopic X-ray pictures were even more eloquent and scientifically valuable4.

Notes on this text

  1. "1850" is 117 years prior to the article. I can't help but wonder if Wetmore is really referring to the three eggs which were discovered that year & brought to Paris, the first tangible proof of the Vorompatra's existence.

  2. As the author himself mentions, walking to Madagascar in Cretaceous times implies having spent a long time on the island--with no fossil evidence of residency for more than 95% of it.

  3. The suggestion was recent in 1967, in terms of ratite development in general and Vorompatra's arrival in Madagascar in particular; but the idea that flightlessness in birds might have something to do with Neoteny was first suggested in 1848 in Strickland and Melville's The Dodo and its Kindred .

  4. As it turns out, the smaller egg also contained an embryo, revealed by a CT scan in 2000. Click here to see what's inside.