Elephantbird Eggs

by Curtis C. Ebbesmeyer


A foot-long egg you say?
No way!
It’s true, I say!!
Big enough to hold
8 ostrich eggs or
180 chicken eggs or
12,000 hummingbird eggs.

by Curtis C. Ebbesmeyer

I wonder whether I could tax the thinking of your Alert membership on the subject of the Giant Elephantbird of Madagascar, whose eggs appear to have floated from Madagascar across the Indian Ocean to the west coast of Australia,” writes John Hawkins of J.B. Hawkins Antiques, New South Wales, Australia.

Across the 500-mile-wide Mozambique Channel, Madagascar stretches 1,000 miles along Africa’s southeast coast facing the Indian Ocean. Earth’s fourth largest island, Madagascar after Greenland, New Guinea and Borneo, once was home to the Giant Elephantbird, the largest ever to tread Earth.

Elephantbird (Illustration adapted from “Vanished Species” by David Day,Gallery Books, 1989 revision.)

Aepyornis maximus (Greek for greatest tall bird) males stood 10 feet tall, weighed one ton — two to four times the weight of a present-day ostrich — and laid watermelon-sized eggs, larger than any of known dinosaurs.

The ratite family of gigantic flightless birds includes four extinct species — Giant Elephantbird of Madagascar, and the Slender Moa, Greater Broad-billed Moa and Lesser Megalapteryx all from the South Island of New Zealand, and seven surviving species — Rhea of South America, three species of Kiwi of New Zealand, the Emu and Cassowary of Australia and New Guinea, and the Ostrich of South Africa.

From a million to perhaps 2,000 years ago their population increased to huge numbers, explaining why as many as 50 egg sherds per square yard litter some southern Madagascar beaches. Human settlement beginning about the time of Christ apparently decimated the great flocks. A few probably lingered on in remote areas till the end of the seventeenth century.

As Madagascans say, the Elephantine birds laid Atodim bobombe. One of 43 known complete bobombes, John’s holds six liters and measures a foot long by eight inches wide. A larger one measuring three feet around, contained 9-plus liters (>2.4 gallons). Another, more than foot long, originally weighed 20-plus pounds, equal to eight ostrich eggs. The average ostrich egg weighs 3.63 to 3.88 pounds, measures 6 to 8 inches long and 4 to 6 inches wide, and can support the weight of a 252- pound person, according to the 1977 Guinness Book of World Records.

Elephantbirds buried their eggs in beach, dune and river sands. “ There is a fairly extensive literature on eggs floating out of nests in marshes or on beaches when high water comes up,” writes bird authority John Dennis. In southern Madagascar, torrential rains washed out a whole egg and laid it to rest intact beneath a bush on a grassy plain (see National
Geographic, October 1967).

As John Dennis alludes, river floods and ocean tides may have floated bobombes out to sea. Rains fall heavily in Madagascar December to April, the likely time eggs began drifting. Though fossilized calcium carbonate shells appear heavy, hollow foot-long eggs like John’s — sherds crack with the sound of porcelain — would float high in sea water like empty pottery jars.

Other possibilities exist for flotation. In the time humans hunted Aepyornis to extinction, tribes probably discovered uses for the great eggs.

Drift of Elephantbird Eggs (Map by Jim Ingraham)

A Kalahari Desert tribe in Africa makes ostrich eggs into water storage containers by poking a hole for
extracting the contents. Perhaps, some early Madagascans sealed Aepyornis eggs which later drifted about the Indian Ocean.

Along the southwestern Australian coast within a hundred miles of Perth, John Hawkins confirms that two elephantine eggs were discovered, one presently in the Perth Museum. The East Madagascar Current which
sweeps the southeastern and southern Madagascar shores might have transported hollow elephantbird eggs to the southwest toward South Africa. Then the South Indian Ocean Current could have transported them to western Australia, a 6,000 mile journey lasting approximately two years. John Dennis reports that a hollow
ostrich egg floats very high in sea water. High windage might’ve shortened the journeys of Aepyornis eggs to a

If they do float for substantial periods of time, some from southern Madagascar should have washed up in South Africa, and others from the north end of the island could go northward to the Maldive Islands. Please report giant egg shell sherds — as well as messagebearing bottles launched near Madagascar — recovered anywhere about the Indian Ocean. (Information from “The Giant Elephant Bird,” by John Hawkins, p. 83, The Australian Antique Collector. Thanks to John Dennis for assistance and Eric Noah for the story of the Kalahari tribe.)