Island Weirdness #47 — Megalocnus rodens

Just 21km south of the Bahamas (13 miles), Cuba is the biggest island in the Caribbean and has a complex geological history. It originated as part of a volcanic island arc in the Late Cretaceous and during its existence in the Cenozoic it was colonized by a richer variety of mammals than the Bahamas ever had, including rodents, the enigmatic solenodons and nesophontes, and ground sloths.

The Caribbean ground sloths were all part of the megalonychid lineage — which eventually reached North America and produced giants — and they arrived on Cuba by the early Miocene, about 20 million years ago.

Megalocnus rodens lived during the Late Pleistocene and Holocene, between about 125,000 and 5000 years ago. It had unusually rodent-like front teeth, and while it was dwarfed compared to its mainland relatives it was actually one of the largest of the Cuban ground sloths — close to the size of a modern black bear, about 80cm tall at the shoulder (2’5″).

Subfossil remains show that Megalocnus survived well into the Holocene, and there’s been speculation that it may even have still been around in the highland forests as late as the time of European colonization in the 1500s.

However, radiocarbon dating of remains has given no dates younger than about 5000-4000 years ago, about 1000 years after the earliest arrival of humans in Cuba.

Island Weirdness #46 — Tyto pollens

The islands of the Caribbean looked very different during the Pleistocene ice ages, when changing sea levels meant larger areas of land were exposed — and one of the most extreme examples of this was the Bahamas, much larger than they are today, with most of the Bahaman Banks exposed and over 10 times more land area.

Tyto pollens was an enormous barn owl, around 1m tall (3’3″), the size of a large eagle and one of the biggest owls to ever exist. It lived in old-growth pine forests on what is now the Andros Island archipelago and preyed mostly on Bahamian hutias, which were originally the only terrestrial mammals in the Bahamas.

It probably evolved in Cuba, and colonized the Bahamas shortly after the hutias did, sometime in the last 400,000 years during a glacial period when a particularly low seal level meant the islands were only about 30km apart.

It was the main nocturnal predator in the Bahamas, and much like its older Italian relative Tyto gigantea it also had a giant hawk counterpart in the daytime: the huge Titanohierax.

Although many popular online sources refer to Tyto pollens as being flightless, it actually had large robust wings and could probably fly quite well. This might be due to some confusion between it and a completely different giant Caribbean owl, Ornimegalonyx.

The Lucayan people probably reached Andros Island sometime around 1000 CE, and coexisted with the giant owls for several centuries. It was only after European arrival in the 1500s and the felling of their forest habitat that they seem to have vanished.

Local legends of an owl-like creature called the chickcharney may have been inspired by historical encounters with Tyto pollens, and suggest that they were aggressively territorial.

Island Weirdness #45 — The Pedro González Dwarf Deer

Isla Pedro González is part of the Pearl Islands in the Gulf of Panama, about 48km (30 miles) offshore. It was formed after the end of the last glacial period, as steadily rising sea levels cut it off completely from mainland Panama about 8500 years ago — and isolating the population of deer that lived there.

Although Pedro González is the third largest of the Pearl Islands it’s still fairly tiny, just 6.5km long (4 miles). As a result of this small space, limited available food supplies, and a lack of any large predators, these deer rapidly shrank down into a dwarfed form to survive. By 6000 years ago they were the size of a small dog, just 35-40cm tall at the shoulder (1’2″-1’4″) and weighing less than 10kg (22lbs).

The Pedro González dwarf deer haven’t been given any official scientific name just yet, but since they’re thought to be descendants of brocket deer they’d be a part of the genus Mazama, either as their own separate species or as a subspecies — similar to the larger native deer on nearby Isla San José, which are probably their closest living relatives.

Paleoindian settlers arrived on Pedro González just over 6000 years ago, and we know they hunted and ate the tiny deer because all the known remains come from a preserved trash heap and show signs of human butchering and chewing.

Younger deposits have gradually less and less deer bones, and although those particular settlers had left again by about 5500 years ago the damage was already done — layers from another group of people about 2300 years ago show no deer bones at all, so the dwarf deer had to be already extinct by that time.

Island Weirdness #43 — Flightless Flies

One of the most defining features of the true flies is a pair of wings, but various different lineages have actually become flightless.

Flightlessness is very rare in the long-legged fly family (Dolichopodidae), however, with only about 12 out of over 5000 species known to have lost functional wings — and eight of those are endemic to the Hawaiian islands.

The Koʻolau spurwing long-legged fly (Emperoptera mirabilis, sometimes classified as Campsicnemus mirabilis) was found only on Mount Tantalus in the southern Koʻolau Range of Oʻahu, close to Honolulu. About 2mm long (>0.1″), its wings were reduced to thin stiff spines, and it moved around by walking and hopping in leaf litter in the moist cool forest at elevations of about 300m (~1000ft).

Like most other long-legged flies it would have been predatory, hunting other tiny invertebrates.

The Koʻolau spurwing was actually still common on Tantalus as recently as the early 1900s, but multiple searches since the 1980s have failed to find any more of them at all. The species is most likely completely extinct, probably due to a combination of predation from invasive ants and habitat destruction from feral wild boar rooting up the forest floor.

Of the other flightless Hawaiian long-legged flies several other species are now possibly extinct — only one out of the five known Emperoptera species still definitely survives on the highest slopes of Mount Kaʻala, and one of the three Campsicnemus is either very rare or also extinct.

The Hawaiian islands also have three endemic species of flightless crane fly in the genus Dicranomyia, all of which are incredibly rare.

Island Weirdness #42 — Tall Owls & Short Ibises

The complete lack of land mammals on the Hawaiian islands left the terrestrial predator niches available to birds — and it was owls who ended up taking advantage of that role in the ecosystem.

The Grallistrix owls were found on Kauaʻi, Oʻahu, Molokaʻi, and Maui, with each island having its own endemic species. They were a type of true owl, probably descended from a species of Strix, and developed especially long legs that led to their nickname of “stilt-owls”.

A stylized illustration of an extinct owl. It has short wings and very long stilt-like legs.
Grallistrix geleches

The Molokaʻi stilt-owl (Grallistrix geleches) was the largest of the four known species, about 60cm tall (2′). Although it had proportionally short wings it was still capable of flying, and probably specialized in stalking and ambushing smaller birds like Hawaiian honeycreepers in the dense forests.

(These owls were also the inspiration for the pokémon Decidueye!)

A stylized illustration of an extinct flightless ibis. It has a downward-curving beak, small wings, and relatively short thick legs compared to other ibises.
Apteribis glenos

Meanwhile the forest floor insectivore niche was occupied by Talpanas on Kauaʻi, but on the other main islands a different type of bird took up the same role.

Apteribis was an ibis closely related to the modern white ibis and scarlet ibis, with three different species found on the islands of Maui, Molokaʻi, and Lānaʻi.

The Moloka’i flightless ibis (Apteribis glenos) was a typical example of the genus, about 50cm long (1’8″). It was flightless, with reduced wings, and had unusually short stocky legs that gave it proportions much more like a kiwi than an ibis. And it probably lived very much like a kiwi, too, probing around in the forest litter with its beak searching for snails and other invertebrates.

We even have an idea of the coloration of these birds, thanks to subfossil remains with preserved feathers. They seem to have been brown and beige, similar to the juvenile plumage of their close relatives.

The arrival of humans at least 1000 years ago would have unfortunately been devastating to both the stilt-owls and the flightless ibises. The combination of hunting, habitat destruction, and invasive dogs, pigs, and rats attacking them and their ground-based nests probably drove them all into extinction very quickly.

Island Weirdness #41 — Talpanas lippa

The big herbivorous moa-nalo weren’t the only unusual waterfowl on the ancient Hawaiian islands — and the island of Kauaʻi had a very odd duck indeed.

The Kauaʻi mole duck (Talpanas lippa) was fairly small, about 50cm long (1’8″), and although it lived alongside one of the moa-nalo species they don’t seem to have been closely related at all. It instead appears to have come from a different duck lineage entirely, with it’s closest living relatives potentially being the stiff-tailed ducks.

It had short chunky legs and an especially weird skull, with eyes so tiny and underdeveloped that it must have been near-blind and flightless. But the areas of its brain associated with the sense of touch were proportionally huge, and although the exact shape of its beak currently isn’t known it seems to have been very wide and flat.

It was probably a nocturnal bird that used an incredibly sensitive bill to grub around in the undergrowth for invertebrates, sort of an equivalent of the modern kiwi but with a face more like a platypus.

The only known Talpanas remains come from mid-Holocene deposits about 6000 years old, but since Kauaʻi is the geologically oldest of the main Hawaiian islands it may have existed there for several million years prior.

Like the moa-nalo it was likely driven to extinction due to human influences on its environment once Polynesian settlers reached the island, sometime between 300 CE and 1200 CE.

Island Weirdness #40 — Moa-Nalo

The islands of Hawaii are part of a larger archipelago formed via hotspot volcanism in the Pacific, and are quite geologically young — the oldest of the main islands was formed just slightly over 5 million years ago, and the youngest less than 0.5 million years ago.

Located almost 3700km (2300 miles) from the nearest continental shore, they’re the most isolated islands on Earth. Their native species are all descended from the rare colonization events that reached such a remote location, either via ocean rafting or island hopping from much older now-submerged islands northwest in the chain.

Like many other Pacific islands no land mammals ever reached Hawaii prior to human arrival, and so it was birds that ended up filling many of the vacant ecological niches.

The dominant herbivores of most the islands were the moa-nalo — no relation to the moa of New Zealand — a group of large flightless birds that resembled giant geese but were actually descended from ducks, with their closest living relative thought to be the modern Pacific black duck. They had reduced wings, chunky legs, and big heavy beaks, some featuring large serrations and others convergently resembling those of giant tortoises.

The Maui Nui large-billed moa-nalo (Thambetochen chauliodous) was one of the biggest species, about 90cm tall (~3′). It originally lived in the highlands of Maui Nui, a large island that formed over 1 million years ago — and when Maui Nui subsided and flooded about 200,000 years ago, it would have then occupied the resulting modern islands of MauiMolokaʻiLānaʻi, and Kahoʻolawe.

Polynesians reached the Hawaiian islands sometime between 300 CE and 1200 CE (the exact dating seems to be controversial). The moa-nalo would have suffered the same fate as many other flightless island birds, lacking any instinctive fear of the new arrivals and falling prey to the invasive pigs, dogs, and rats they brought with them.

Island Weirdness #39 — Mekosuchus inexpectatus

Along with their weird giant birds, the islands of New Caledonia were also home to a small crocodilian unlike any alive today.

It was one of the last known members of a lineage of crocodiles known as the mekosuchines, which originated in Australia during the early Eocene about 50 million years ago and later island-hopped out into the South Pacific — mostly around the Coral Sea, but with some making it as far as New Zealand. By the start of the Holocene, about 12,000 years ago, they’d already declined and disappeared from the vast majority of their range, with only a few isolated island species remaining.

Named Mekosuchus inexpectatus, the New Caledonian mekosuchine was only about 2m long (6’6″), just slightly bigger than the modern dwarf crocodile. It was much more terrestrial than living crocs, spending most of its time on land, and it had teeth in the back of its jaws that were specialized for crushing, suggesting it mainly preyed on hard-shelled invertebrates such as snails and crabs.

Based on its limbs anatomy it may also have been able to climb trees. Although this idea was ridiculed when it was originally suggested back in the 1990s, a more recent discovery has shown that modern crocs can actually climb trees too.

Like with many other Holocene island species, the extinction of Mekosuchus inexpectatus seems to be directly linked to the arrival of humans, who reached New Caledonia around 1500 BCE.

Bones in archaeological kitchen waste sites show that the settlers actively hunted and ate Mekosuchus, but dating of the last known remains is uncertain. The most generous estimate is actually as recent as about 300 CE, so much like Sylviornis these small land crocs may have persisted for some time before finally going extinct.

Island Weirdness #38 — Sylviornis neocaledoniae

Between Australia and Fiji lie the islands of New Caledonia, an archipelago at the northern end of the mostly-submerged continent of Zealandia. Having split away from Australia at the end of the Cretaceous, 66 million years ago, New Caledonia’s Cenozoic isolation has resulted in the islands acting as a refugium for a number of “living fossil” lineages, including the kagu, a small nautilius, and the “primitive” flowering plant Amborella.

One of the strangest residents of these islands was Sylviornis neocaledoniae, a huge flightless bird standing around 0.75m tall (2’6″) and measuring about 1.7m long (5’7″). Initially mistaken for a ratite, it was later found to be a cousin of the galliforms, the group that contains modern chickens, turkeys, pheasants, quail, megapodes, and curassows.

Sylviornis had a massive skull with a large deep beak, topped with a bony crest, along with reduced wings and stout legs. It also had no wishbone, extra tail vertebrae, and a ribcage and pelvis that looked more like a non-avian dinosaur.

It was probably a slow-moving herbivore, browsing on plant matter and digging up roots and tubers with its beak and feet.

Thousands of subfossil remains of Sylviornis individuals have been found, but a large proportion of them are all juveniles, suggesting that this species’ reproductive strategy was to have large numbers of young at a time. It also seems to have had a surprisingly short lifespan for its size — just 5-7 years.

New Caledonia was first settled by humans around 1500 BCE, and it’s likely that Sylviornis was hunted by both them and the invasive mammals they brought along like dogs, pigs, and rats.

The folklore of the Kanak people features stories of a large flightless bird known as the du, described as being reddish-colored with a star-shaped crest, so it’s possible Sylviornis actually persisted alongside the new arrivals for some time — but eventually the environmental disruption was too much for these odd primitive dino-chickens, and they were gone.

Island Weirdness #37 — Natunaornis gigoura

The islands of Fiji are located in the South Pacific, a couple of thousand kilometers east of Australia and northeast of New Zealand. Formed via volcanic activity, the over 300 islands making up the archipelago had no native land mammals for most of their history, leading to birds, reptiles, and amphibians taking up the large animal niches in the ecosystem.

Subfossil remains of a unique mix of species have been found on Viti Levu, the largest of the Fijian islands — including a flightless megapode, a sylviornithid, a big frog, a giant iguana, a terrestrial crocodilian, and a meolaniid tortoise.

One of the most surprising discoveries, however, was actually a pigeon.

Natunaornis gigoura was by far the biggest pigeon known from any Pacific island, and one of the largest pigeons to ever live, being almost the same size as the Mauritian dodo at around 0.9m tall (3′). But unlike its distant cousin it still looked very much like a scaled-up normal pigeon, probably resembling a giant version of the closely related modern crowned pigeons.

It had reduced wings and strong legs, indicating it was flightless, and an unspecialized beak that suggests it was a generalist forager eating fallen fruit, seeds, and invertebrates from the forest floor.

Natunaornis existed well into the Holocene, but like many other island dwellers it was severely affected by the arrival of humans. Austronesian peoples reached Fiji somewhere between 3500 BCE and 1000 BCE, and it’s likely that a combination of hunting and predation from introduced mammals rapidly killed off the giant pigeons along with all the other large native species.