National Geographic News
An auction specialist holds up an elephant bird egg.

A person holds a rare elephant bird egg at Christie's in London on March 27.

Photograph by Andy Rain, European Pressphoto Agency

Brett Line

National Geographic News

Published April 1, 2013

Easter egg hunts may have come and gone, but bidding will open soon on one of the world's largest eggs: On April 24, Christie's auction house will give buyers a crack at nabbing an elephant bird egg that's a foot (30.5 centimeters) long and nearly nine inches (22.9 centimeters) in diameter.

The elephant bird egg will be featured during Christie's Travel, Science and Natural History sale in London. The auction house expects the egg to go for more than $45,000.

Extinct since the 17th century, elephant birds were found only on the island of Madagascar.  Researchers believe the birds went extinct because of human activity—primarily habitat loss and hunting.

The flightless, ostrich-like birds could grow to be 11 feet (3.35 meters) tall. And their eggs were huge—up to 100 times larger than the average chicken's. Intact eggs today are considered extremely rare and can demand steep prices.

"Any whole eggs found today in Madagascar are legally the property of the Malagasy government," said archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson, a professor at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. "So no more complete eggs will ever come on the open market, and that must make these very few eggs already in museum and private collections very valuable."

So I was intrigued when I learned, in the course of researching this story, that National Geographic owns one of these rare eggs. I decided to stage my own egg hunt and set off to find it.

The egg had originally been given to Luis Marden, a legendary photographer for National Geographic magazine, in 1967 when he was on assignment in Madagascar—just one of many assignments around the world over his six-decade career with the magazine.

When he was just 19 Marden wrote one of the first books on 35mm color photography, Color Photography with the Miniature Camera. He would go on to become an early pioneer in underwater color photography; many of his underwater camera techniques are still used today.

After email inquiries, phone calls, and snooping around random rooms in the headquarters building in Washington, D.C., I got word of the possible location of the egg. A tip led me to a staff member at the National Geographic Museum.

"I'm looking for an elephant bird egg that was given to Luis Marden in 1967," I queried.

"Ah! The Aepyornis egg that Luis Marden obtained while on assignment in Madagascar," said the representative, who wishes to remain nameless.

Once out for display at the National Geographic Society's Washington headquarters, I learned, the egg now rests in a locked case in a climate-controlled room underground.

There are no plans to bring it back out for display, according to the National Geographic Museum staffer. But colorful plastic eggs filled with cheap candy will never do it for me again.

ron pederson
ron pederson

My grandfather, Christian Pederson, acquired an aepiornus egg while he was in Madagascar as a missionary. My father, Erling C. Pederson, was born in Madagascar along with 8 brothers and sisters and had possession of the egg in the 1950s or 60s. I saw and handled the egg when I was young and wonder whatever happened to it. I heard it was given to a museum or possibly to National Geographic.

Does anyone know of its whereabouts?

Halsey Spruance
Halsey Spruance

Hi Nat Geo, FYI, the Delaware Museum of Natural History in Wilmington, Delaware has an Elephant Bird egg which is currently (always) on display to the public. The egg measures 70 centimeters (27.5 inches) around and 31 centimeters (12.2 inches) tall.It was acquired by our Museum founder in 1970. The egg is so large that it can hold the equivalent of seven ostrich eggs, 183 chicken eggs, or more than 12,000 hummingbird eggs!


Michael Fleeman
Michael Fleeman

Bret Line, this is not a fossil, it is not old enough to be considered as such. Its disappointing that someone writing for Nat Geo doesn't know this. 

Gregory Williams
Gregory Williams

Love to see one of those cloned if they can find enough DNA. I'll add to my list of creatures that should be brought back from extinction due to mankind. That's an impressive bird and egg.

Nancy Cavanaugh
Nancy Cavanaugh

There are a few complete ones. A museum in Denver has two. There's the Nat Geo one and the one David Attenborough has. A few have washed up on the shores of Australia in the last 20 years. There's a museum in, I believe Paris, that has a fully formed one on display. I really do need to finish my book on them.

Billel N.
Billel N.

really interesting , by the way I've red an article like that befor a week.....

C. Dufour
C. Dufour

interesting read, there are few of these eggs in existence and very few are as complete as this specimen. perhaps the most famous egg belongs to david attenborough:

in thin interesting clip, we can see how easy it might of been to actually get one of these eggs are few years ago.

Jango Mccormick
Jango Mccormick

@Michael Fleeman The article never says how old the egg is. The elephant birds were around long before the egg was collected so it is possible that it is over 10,000 years old, at which point it is technically considered a fossil. I have no idea when it is from, so you could well be right.


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