The Madagascan Aepyornis maximus, also known as the Elephant Bird, Vourin Patra or Vorompatra ("Marsh Bird" in the modern Malagasy dialect) was thought to be the giant flying beast known as the Roc (or Ruhk) in the tales of Sinbad and accounts of Marco Polo's voyages. Vourin Patra or Vouronpatra was the name given by the French colonialists in Madagascar from the local name. The origins of the name of "Elephant Bird" are unclear, but are thought possibly to originate with the account by Marco Polo.
The bird grew to around 10 or 11 feet in height and whilst probably unable to devour an elephant, as the Roc was reputed to do, it certainly was the largest bird ever to have lived. It was estimated to weigh up to 1100lbs (the largest ostriches might grow to 8 feet in height and weigh 300lbs). The only bird that could come close was the Moa of New Zealand, which could reach 13 feet, but whose slimmer frame weighed considerably less (and which became extinct around the same time). The Elephant Bird was a ratite, a flightless bird, due to its lack of a keel in the breast bone (the anchor for the basic musculature of the wings).
The Elephant Bird was not the only Aepyornis, there existing in the fossil record between three and seven different types. The Elephant Bird is classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Aves, order Aepyornithiformes, family Aepyornithidae. Reports suggest that the Aepyornis maximus first appeared anywhere between the Pleistocene period (1.8million to 11,000 years ago - also the era of the La Brea tarpits) and a mere 2,000BC. What is certain, however, is that it was only accompanied to the modern age by the smaller Aepyornis mullerornis. It is thought to have become extinct by 1700, at the same time as other Madagascan megafauna such as the giant lemur and the pygmi hippopotamus.
Although Europeans did not really have much contact with the island until 1642 (the Portuguese having been the first to visit it in 1500), the Elephant Bird, although scarce, is occasionally recorded in their contemporary reports as having existed at that time. The first French governor of the island, Étienne de Flacourt, wrote in 1658 of the "vouropatra - a large bird that haunts the Ampatres and lays eggs like the ostriches; so that the people of these places may not take it, it seeks the most lonely places". Unfortunately, no actual European eye-witness reports exist, possibly as the colonists largely avoided the interior of the island and the larger settlements of the somewhat idignant Malagasy natives. Others of their descriptions of the bird, however, describe it as a shy, peaceful creature.
The eggs of the Elephant Bird are larger even than the largest dinosaur eggs, and it has been hypothesised that they are in fact of the largest size that a structionally-functional egg could possibly be: the largest single cell on earth. They can measure up to 13in. (33cm.) in length (as with the present examples) and had a liquid capacity of 2 gallons (7.5 litres).
Most usually, only shell middens are found from these eggs (generally amongst the dunes of the southern coastline) but very occasionally whole eggs are discovered. The shell fragments are often found in close proximity to evidence of human occupation, suggesting they certainly had some sort of significance, whether as food, or a more important symbolic item, to the inhabitants of the island.
Curiously, the skeletal remains of the bird are extremely rare, as such making it difficult to establish the possible tphonomic processes that led to its disappearance, but one can assume, with the arrival of man on the island approximately 2000 years ago, the gradual loss of habitat to agriculture, and doubtless both the plundering of nests and the hunting of the birds themselves, contributed to its slow demise.