The Vorompatra (Malagasy for “marsh bird” or “bird of the Ampatres wetlands”) was a cryptid megafaunal bird that was supposed to have lived in the forests and wetlands of Madagascar. A cryptid is an animal that is unrecognized or under dispute by the practitioners of zoology, such as Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster.
Beyond the mythology and rumor of this huge bird lies the answers provided by paleontology. These birds are thought to have been ratites, flightless and referred to as elephant birds due to their size.
They are suspected to have been endemic to the island and to have become extinct due to human activity and hunting. The Vorompatra have been described as being similar to an ostrich but are most closely related to a much smaller bird, the kiwi of New Zealand.
As recently as 2018, scientists have claimed that this species may have reached a weight of 730kg (1600 lb) and stood around 3 meters (10 feet) tall. However, little evidence remains of this bird, and some dispute whether it ever existed at all.
A Description from History
The Vorompatra, whatever they were, have been extinct since at least the 17th century. The French Governor of Madagascar in the 1640s, Etienne de Flacourt claims to have seen an ostrich-like bird that inhabited unpopulated regions.
It is unproven whether this is true or if he was merely repeating local folklore. In 1659, Flacourt described the “Vouropatra” as a large bird that haunted the Ampatres (marshland found in Madagascar) and that laid eggs much like an ostrich. It stayed away from people so as to protect itself and its eggs.
However, this was not the first mention of this kind of bird in history. As early back as the 13th century, the international traveler and explorer Marco Polo wrote about large birds when he was visiting the Oriental Eastern lands. He claimed that the Khans of the Mongol Empire had heard of a bird just outside of their borders that was huge.
They sent messengers and explorers to find it. These explorers returned with a feather that was described as being 2 palms and 9 [arm]spans long. However, as with everything that Marco Polo recounted, this story needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.
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In the years between 1830 and 1850, European travelers to Madagascar began to notice large eggs and eggshells. The English visitors were much happier to believe in a giant bird roaming the land or at least having roamed the land because they had become familiar with the moa, another large flightless bird, found in New Zealand.
Some of the fragments and bones that were found in Madagascar were retrieved and transported back to France’s Academy of Science. The eggs were around 34cm (13 inches) in length and remain the largest type of bird egg ever found. The egg that was found weighed around 10 kg (22 lb). Its volume was around 160 times greater than that of a common chicken egg.
The Elephant Birds we Know
This is not the only place in the world where such large birds were found, and indeed many of them were genetic cousins. There have been around 10 to 11 species related to the Elephant Bird family. However, some of the validities of these species have been questioned.
Many of the authors erroneously treated the different birds as all just one species. The work of Hansford and Turvey in 2018 finally clarified the situation and has limited the different Elephant Birds to just four species. And only one of these has been classed as Vorompatra.
The Elephant Bird is a term that dates back to Marco Polo’s description from 1298 when he discussed the rukh. This rukh was an eagle-like bird that was strong enough to seize an elephant in its talons.
Sailors of the 15th century also recorded seeing large eggs in the form of maps being created. For example, the Fra Mauro map of 1467-69 has text on it indicating that they thought there may have been a giant bird roaming the land. The legend of the giant eagle, known as the roc, may have arisen from sightings of a giant subfossil eagle which may have been related to the African crowned eagle.
Much like other flightless birds, the emu, cassowary, kiwi, and the moa, the elephant bird was a ratite. This is a type of bird with a flat breastbone without a keel and unable to fly. Recent research has shown, using DNA evidence, to show that the kiwi is the closest relation to the elephant bird albeit they are not that closely related. There is around a 54-million-year divergence between them.
A Lost Species
There is no rainforest fossil record for the elephant bird. It is not known for certain if they as a species adapted to a dense forest dwelling much like the cassowary in Australia.
Some rainforest fruits may have adapted through the years so that they could go through the gut of the elephant bird. It has been suggested that the elephant bird likely had a grazing-dominated diet like the greater rhea.
Very occasionally there are new subfossil eggs are found still intact. The National Geographic Society in Washington DC holds an example of the elephant bird from 1967.
The specimen includes a skeleton of an unhatched bird. The Denver Museum of Nature and Science in Colorado still holds two intact eggs one of which is on display and can be seen today. David Attenborough, the English broadcaster and biologist, owned a nearly complete shell dating from 600 to 700 AD which he had pieced together from fragments that he had been given during a program in 1961.
It is a long-held belief that the elephant bird has become extinct due to human activity. It seems that the bird was widespread across Madagascar from the Northern to the Southern tip. One theory is that the humans nearby hunted them to extinction over a short period of time.
There is evidence for this as there have been eggshells found as being used as bowls and remains found in fires. The exact date of their extinction is unknown. There is carbon dating found from around 1880 give or take 70 years.
The birds may have also just died from contracting diseases from new travelers. However, the bones that have been found have shown that the birds were long hunted and tools emerge from around 10, 000 BC.
Top Image: Reconstruction of the elephant bird, believed to be the original for the Vorompatra. Source: El fosilmaníaco / CC BY-SA 3.0.
By Kurt Readman