Island Weirdness #36 — Haast’s Eagle

Before the arrival of humans in New Zealand, the only predator of the native giant flightless birds was Haast’s eagle (Hieraaetus moorei), an enormous species of raptor from the South Island.

With the slightly larger females reaching lengths of around 1.4m (4’7″) and hefty body weights of 15kg (33lbs), it was the largest eagle known to have ever lived, and one of the largest of all birds of prey. Yet its wings were actually proportionally short for its size, spanning about 2.5m (8’2″), giving it less ability to soar but much better maneuverability when flying in the thick vegetation of scrubland and forests.

Its closest living relatives are the much smaller Australian little eagle and the Palearctic booted eagle, which its lineage split from sometime in the Pleistocene — meaning that it must have evolved to be so huge incredibly quickly.

At its size and weight when striking it would have hit its prey with a force equivalent to a falling cinder block, and with no major competitors it could have fed from a single large kill for many days.

As apex predators Haast’s eagles would also have never been particularly numerous, and their population was very sensitive to the availability of their prey species.

Unfortunately the early Māori people also found the large flightless birds like the moa to be delicious easy meals, and by the early 1400s the eagle had disappeared alongside its main food sources. Legends about a giant human-eating bird called the pouakai are thought to be based on folk memory of Haast’s eagle, and it may well have occasionally preyed on the settlers during the short time it coexisted with them.

Island Weirdness #35 — Flightless Giants

With the lack of large terrestrial mammals in New Zealand, birds were free to exploit the “big herbivore” niches in the ecosystem — and the giant moa were the ultimate result.

Closely related to modern South American tinamous, the ancestors of moa were small flying birds that arrived in New Zealand sometime in the early Cenozoic. At the time of the Miocene St Bathans fossil deposits they were already large and flightless, and by the Holocene they had grown truly enormous.

Uniquely they completely lost their wings, not even having the tiny vestigial bones seen in other large flightless birds.

A stylized illustration of an extinct giant flightless bird. It has a tiny head with a downward-curving beak, a long neck, no wings at all, and long chunky legs.
Dinornis robustus

The South Island giant moa (Dinornis robustus) was the largest of them all, with females standing almost 2m tall at the back (6’6″) and able to reach their heads up to heights of around 3.6m (11’10”). It had a long neck, a relatively tiny head with a curved beak, and large powerful legs — and preserved hair-like body feathers show that it was reddish-brown in color.

It also had some of the most extreme sexual dimorphism seen in any bird species, with the males being significantly smaller than the females at only about 1.2m tall (3’11”). This seems to have been the result of scaling-up smaller differences in body size from their ancestors.


A stylized illustration of an extinct flightless bird. It has a triangular downward curving beak, a long neck, small wings, and short stout legs.
Aptornis defossor

The adzebills were another odd group of big flightless birds whose ancestors also date back to sometime before the St Bathans deposits. They had large downward-curving beaks, short strong legs, and highly reduced wings that were smaller proportionally than those of the dodo.

They were less common than the moa, found only the drier forested parts of the lowlands, and based on isotope analysis of their bones they seem to have been predators hunting invertebrates, reptiles, and smaller birds.

When their remains were first discovered they were even thought to be a type of moa, but later studies (including recovered ancient DNA) have shown they were actually gruiformes, with their closest living relatives being either the South American trumpeters or the African flufftails.

The South Island adzebill (Aptornis defossor) was the slightly larger of the two species known from the Holocene, reaching sizes of about 0.8-1m tall (2’8″-3’3″).

The ancestors of the Māori people arrived in New Zealand around the year 1300, and sadly within about a century a combination of human hunting pressure and predation by introduced mammals sent both the moa and adzebills into total extinction.

Voay

Did you know some crocodiles have “horns”?

Formed from the corners of the squamosal bone at the back of their skulls, just above their ears, these structures are seen in living crocs like the Cuban crocodile and the Siamese crocodile, as well as some fossil species.

But perhaps the most impressively-horned croc was Voay robustus here.

Voay lived on the island of Madagascar during the Late Pleistocene and Holocene, between about 100,000 and 2,000 years ago. At about 5m long (16′5″) it was similar in size and build to a large male Nile crocodile – but despite this resemblance its closest living relative is actually the much smaller dwarf crocodile.

It had a fairly short and deep snout and chunky limbs, adaptations associated with a more terrestrial lifestyle that suggest it was specialized for hunting its prey on land rather than just at the water’s edge.

Much like modern horned crocodiles its particularly prominent horns were probably used for territorial displays, and may have been a sexually dimorphic feature with big mature males having the largest examples.

Voay’s disappearance just a couple of thousand years ago may have been the result of the arrival of human settlers on the island, either from being directly hunted or due to the large native species it preyed on also going extinct around the same time.

Island Weirdness #28 – The Rodrigues Solitaire

Located to the east of Mauritius, the small island of Rodrigues is the geologically youngest of the Mascarenes, formed only about 1.5-2 million years ago.

And it also had its own large flightless bird – the Rodrigues solitaire, Pezophaps solitaria.

It was closely related to the dodo, although it wasn’t a direct descendant. Based on DNA studies their last common ancestor is estimated to have lived about 20 million years ago, so they must have each convergently evolved from separate pigeon lineages that arrived on each island at different times.

Standing 70-90cm tall (2′4″-2′11″), with males being larger than females, it had long legs, a long neck, and a slightly hooked beak with a black band described as resembling a widow’s peak. Its plumage was grey and brown, and it was reportedly aggressively territorial and capable of giving a strong bite.

It had large lumpy bony knobs on its wrist bones that were used as weapons to clobber each other while fighting. Due to this its wings were less reduced than the dodo, retaining stronger musculature, and it was apparently also capable of using them to create loud low-frequency sounds for communication – possibly in a similar manner to modern crested pigeons’ whistling wings.

The solitaire survived for longer than both its dodo cousin and the Réunion ibis, but only because its island was rarely visited by humans until the late 1600s. Once Rodrigues began to be exploited the story became the same as the other Mascarene islands: a combination of hunting, habitat destruction, and predation by invasive species rapidly dwindled its population. It likely went extinct sometime between the 1730s and 1750s, since an exhaustive search for a live specimen in 1755 failed to find a single bird.

Island Weirdness #27 – The Réunion Ibis

The island of Réunion was formed southwest of Mauritius ony about 2-3 million years ago, and likewise developed its own vertebrate ecosystem from various birds, reptiles, and bats arriving via island hopping and rafting.

Accounts from the 1600s and 1700s of a white bird on the island known as the “Réunion solitaire” were for a long time thought to refer to a close relative of the dodo, but no dodo-like subfossil remains were ever found.

Eventually bones of a different type of bird were discovered: an ibis. Closely related to the African sacred ibis, Threskiornis solitarius was a similar size at about 65cm long (2′2″) but had a much chunkier build. Its beak was shorter and straighter than other ibises, and it had reduced flight capabilities – features that matched the old solitaire descriptions surprisingly well.

Its coloration was mostly white, merging into grey and yellow, and it had glossy or iridescent black ostrich-like plumes on its rear. It mainly lived in forests and used its beak to search through soft soil for invertebrates like worms and insects.

A combination of its island tameness and the fact that it was considered to be good eating resulted in it being heavily hunted during the 1600s, and along with pressure from invasive mammals – such as predation by cats and its eggs being eaten by pigs – it soon became a rare sight, found only in more remote highland areas of the island.

The last definite account of the Réunion ibis was in the early 1700s, and it was probably completely extinct within the first couple of decades of that century.

Island Weirdness #26 – The Mauritian Giant Skink

Along with its unique birds, Mauritius was also home to many endemic reptile species. In the absence of terrestrial mammals giant tortoises were the largest herbivores on the island, and various geckos, skinks, and snakes helped to fill out the rest of the vertebrate ecosystem.

Leiolopisma mauritiana was a very large skink, one of the biggest ever known to have existed with a total length of around 80cm (2′7″). Its ancestors originated in Australasia, over 5600km away (~3500 miles) at least 3-4 million years ago – and they must have endured a particularly long ocean rafting journey without any island hopping stops, since none of the other islands along that route seem to have ever had populations of similar skinks.

It probably lived in rocky areas, possibly also being capable of digging burrows, and would have eaten an omnivorous diet of seeds, fruits, invertebrates, and smaller lizards and birds.

By the early 1600s it was already extinct, very soon after the arrival of humans, probably due to predation from invasive mammals like rats. However, its half-sized close relative Leiolopisma telfairii does still survive on rat-free Round Island a short distance to the north of Mauritius, and recent conservation efforts have been rebuilding its population and setting up new colonies on other nearby small islands.

Island Weirdness #25 – The Broad-Billed Parrot

The dodo wasn’t the only unique bird to evolve on Mauritius. While about eight other endemic bird species still survive today, there were at least twice that many before the arrival of humans in the late 1500s – including the broad-billed parrot Lophopsittacus mauritianus.

Also referred to as the “Indian raven” in historical accounts, it was a fairly large bird measuring between 45 and 65cm in length (1′6″-2′1″). Unusually for a parrot it had a high degree of sexual dimorphism, with males being significantly bigger than females.

Many images depict it as entirely black or blue-grey, but this seems to be based on a misinterpretation. More recent translations of old Dutch descriptions suggest it was actually much more colorful, with a red beak, blue head, and reddish body.

It had a proportionally big head and a flattened skull, and seems to have had a highly specialized diet, using its its large strong beak to crack open hard seeds and nuts like modern hyacinth macaws.

It was near-flightless, capable of taking to the air only with difficulty, and was said to be “bad-tempered”. Attempts to keep individuals in captivity failed, the birds refusing to eat, and while the wild population had apparently learned to be wary of humans by the late 1660s by that point it was already too late. Much like the dodos they lived alongside, a combination of deforestation, hunting, and predation by invasive mammal species sent them into extinction by the 1680s.

Island Weirdness #24 – The Dodo

Out of all the extinct island species we’ll be covering in this theme, there’s probably none more famous than the dodo (Raphus cucullatus) – a large flightless pigeon about 1m tall (3′3″).

The island of Mauritius was formed from a volcanic hotspot in the Indian Ocean about 10-7 million years ago, in a location roughly 1000km east of Madagascar (~620 miles). The dodo’s smaller flying ancestors must have arrived there sometime after that point via island-hopping from Southeast Asia – the area where its closest living relative the Nicobar pigeon is still found today – and finding themselves in an ecosystem completely lacking terrestrial mammals they quickly evolved to fill a large herbivore niche.

Although frequently depicted as blue-grey, the dodo’s actual life appearance is unknown for certain. No complete preserved specimens have survived into the present day, and contemporary accounts and drawings are somewhat inconsistent – but common elements among them suggest it was more of an earthy brown, with cream-colored primary feathers, yellow legs, a naked pale face, and a green-and-yellow streaked beak. The large white ostrich-like tail plumes shown in many images have also probably been highly exaggerated, since older images depict the dodo with only a tiny tufted tail at best.

Its appearance probably also varied based on the time of year, molting its feathers at the end of summer and being fattest during the breeding season in early spring.

And despite often being stereotyped as a slow dim-witted animal, the proportions of the dodo’s leg bones suggest it was actually quite fast and agile. Its brain-to-body size ratio was also typical compared to other pigeons – which are known to be highly intelligent birds – and it had a well-developed sense of smell.

Sadly this fascinating bird disappeared within only a century of being discovered by humans in the late 1500s. Its “island tameness” due to its lack of natural predators made it easy prey, its forest habitat was rapidly destroyed, and introduced mammal species (such as dogs, pigs, cats, rats, and macaques) competed for its food sources and ate its eggs and young – pressures that its population simply couldn’t hope to recover from all at one.

Its loss wasn’t even properly recognized until much later in the 1800s, but since then it has ironically become immortalized as a icon of human-caused extinction.

Island Weirdness #23 – The Bibymalagasy

One of the most mysterious members of Madagascar’s pre-human ecosystem was a creature known as Plesiorycteropus, or the “bibymalagasy”.

It’s known only from fragmentary remains, including a few limb bones, vertebrae, partial skulls, and partial pelvises – with two different species identified, the larger Plesiorycteropus madagascariensis and the smaller Plesiorycteropus germainepetterae. For a long time it was it was unclear what type of mammal it even was and the best guess seemed to be “some sort of small aardvark-relative” based on anatomical similarities, but various studies disagreed and some even considered it to represent a completely unique order of mammals.

In 2013 an analysis of preserved collagen from one bone finally gave a better answer – Plesiorycteropus was most closely related to tenrecs, which arrived in Madagascar via ocean rafting during the mid-Cenozoic, and the skeletal resemblance to aardvarks was due to convergent evolution.

It was built for scratch-digging, using its strong forelimbs and claws to dig while bracing itself with its hindlimbs and long thick tail. Its snout had large nasal cavities, indicating a good sense of smell, and similarities to the skulls of armadillos suggest it had the same sort of diet of insects, grubs, worms, and other soft foods. It may also have fed on ants and termites.

Since it’s only known from fragments its full size is hard to determine, but rough estimates suggest Plesiorycteropus madagascariensis was “small dog-sized” – possibly having a head-and-body length of 60-80cm (2′-2′7), and a total length of over 1m (3′3″).

Unlike some other extinct Malagasy animals there are no historical or folkloric accounts of anything resembling the bibymalagasy. One bone has been carbon dated to just over 2000 years ago, shortly after the arrival of human settlers, and it seems to have gone extinct very soon after that date.

Island Weirdness #22 – Aepyornis maximus

Along with a lot of unusual mammals, Madagascar was also home to some of the largest birds to ever exist: the giant elephant birds.

Despite being located so close to mainland Africa, these enormous flightless ratites weren’t the closest relatives of ostriches as might be expected. Instead their closest living relatives are the kiwis of New Zealand, and they must have descended from flying ancestors that reached Madagascar across the Indian Ocean sometime during the early-to-mid Cenozoic.

Aepyornis maximus was one of the biggest of these big birds, standing around 3m tall (9′10″) and weighing over 500kg (1,100 lbs). Its eggs were equally massive, up to 34cm long (1’1″) and with a circumference of over 1m (3′3), making them the largest known eggs laid by any vertebrate.

Recent studies of the shape of its brain within its skull show that it had a good sense of smell but very poor eyesight – possibly being near-blind – suggesting that much like its kiwi relatives it was highly specialized for a nocturnal lifestyle.

There were several other species of elephant bird throughout Madagascar, and at least some of them appear to have successfully survived alongside humans for quite some time. Carbon dating of eggshells suggests they were still alive around 1000 years ago, and based on historical mentions they may have persisted as late as the 1600s before finally disappearing.