Vorombe Titan: 1,800-Pound Creature Named as World's Largest-Ever Bird

Elephant bird mock-up image (c) Jaime Chirinos 2009
An artist's illustration of Vorombe titan. Jaime Chirinos

Scientists have argued for decades about the identity of the largest-ever bird in the world. Now, a new study published in the journal Royal Society Open Science may put the debate to rest.

Researchers awarded the title to a creature it calls the Vorombe titan—an extinct bird that once roamed the African island of Madagascar. It was a giant, weighing up to 1,800 pounds and growing to nearly 10 feet tall.

V. titan belonged to a group known as "elephant birds" that lived on the island sometime in the most recent 500,000 to 1 million years, according to the study's lead author, James Hansford, from the Zoological Society of London.

"Elephant birds are a radiation of extinct, giant, flightless birds unique to the island of Madagascar," he told Newsweek. "They are part of a group of birds which are called ratites, which include ostriches, emu, rhea, cassowaries and kiwi. Remarkably, it is the kiwi that are the closest living relatives to elephant birds today."

The study named V. titan as the largest-ever bird after the researchers revealed unexpected diversity in elephant birds. Until now, there were thought to be only up to 15 different species of the Madagascan creatures, split between two different genera—the plural of genus, which means a group of species.

"For over 80 years, there has been serious confusion over the number of elephant bird species due to exceptionally competitive scientists throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries," Hansford said.

The researchers analyzed hundreds of elephant bird bones from museums across the world and found that the group was in fact spread across three genera and at least four distinct species.

"This is the first rigorous study of elephant birds in over 80 years and the first to incorporate the global collections of their skeletal remains in a quantitative framework, allowing the interpretation of their diversity," Hansford said. "I found four distinctly different elephant bird taxa, which represent three genera and four species (Mulleornis modestus, Aepyornis hildebrandti, Aepyornis maximus and Vorombe titan)."

A. maximus has often been considered the world's largest-ever bird. In 1894, British scientist C.W. Andrews described an even larger species, Aepyornis titan, but this has long been dismissed as simply an unusually large specimen of A. maximus.

But according to Hansford, A. titan not only represents a unique species but is so different that it merits a separate genus name, Vorombe, which means "big bird" in the Malagasy language. Thus, V. titan has become the new title holder of the world's largest-ever bird, according to the study.

While the bird is extinct, the latest findings could have implications for conservation efforts in Madagascar today.

"Understanding the diversity of the recently extinct megafauna in Madagascar is critical in developing a natural baseline of the ecosystems of Madagascar," Hansford said. "Using this information, we can begin to interpret the untouched environments, informing conservation and regeneration planning."

Hansford said he hopes the study will inspire further research. "I also hope that this study forms the modern understanding of these incredible birds and sparks new, exciting studies into their evolutionary history and lives," he added. "I find it incredible that we know less about the world's largest-ever birds that were walking around just 1,000 years ago than we do many dinosaurs that have been extinct for millions of years!"