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 #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 #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.

Island Weirdness #17 – Tyto gigantea

The largest terrestrial predators on the Late Miocene Gargano-Scontrone island(s) were unusually big hedgehog-relatives, and likewise the local aerial predators also increased in size compared to most of their cousins on the mainland.

Tyto gigantea was a massive barn owl, estimated to have been at least as large as the modern eagle-owl – probably measuring somewhere around 80cm in length (2′7″). It likely grew so big thanks to the lack of competition and in order to keep up with the larger sizes of its prey, since the rodents and pikas of Gargano-Scontrone were also comparative giants.

Alongside the slightly smaller species Tyto robusta it would have been the dominant nocturnal predator on the island(s), while during the daytime the golden-eagle-sized buzzard Garganoaetus occupied the same large-carnivorous-bird niche.

Island Weirdness #16 – Garganornis ballmanni

While some of the main big herbivores on the Late Miocene Gargano-Scontrone island(s) were the larger species of Hoplitomeryx, they weren’t the only animals filling that ecological niche.

Garganornis was an enormous anatid bird, closely related to modern ducks, geese, and swans. Although only known from fragments of its skeleton it’s estimated to have stood up to 1.5m tall (4′11″), making it the largest known waterfowl to have ever lived.

It probably reached such a size thanks to the lack of large terrestrial predators, and possibly also as protection against the island eagles and owls – literally growing too big for them to be able to eat.

It was flightless, with small wings, and had reduced webbing between its toes, suggesting it spent most of its time walking around on land. It also had bony knobs on its wrists that would have been used to give some extra force to wing-slaps when fighting with each other over territory or mates.

Island Weirdness #15 – Deinogalerix

Thanks to the absence of large terrestrial carnivores on the Gargano-Scontrone island(s) during the Late Miocene, animals that were usually small had the opportunity to become larger, moving into the vacant ecological niches and evolving into predators unlike anything existing on the mainland.

Deinogalerix was a giant member of the gymnures – close relatives of hedgehogs without the quills – with a proportionally big head and a long snout full of large fangs at the front and bone-crushing molars at the back.

Several different species have been found, with the largest Deinogalerix koenigswaldi having a head-and-body length of around 60cm (2′). Along with its tail that would have made it at least 90cm long (2′11″), making it the biggest eulipotyphlan ever discovered.

It would probably have hunted smaller mammals, birds, and reptiles, filling a niche on the island similar to dogs or cats.

Island Weirdness #14 – Hoplitomeryx

During the mid-Miocene, about 15 million years ago, a region of central and southeast Italy around Gargano and Scontrone was cut off from the mainland by rising sea levels.

For the next 7-10 million years this island (or perhaps a cluster of islands) was left isolated, and an unusual ecosystem developed known as the “Mikrotia fauna”. With the island starting off lacking large predators, small herbivorous animals like rodents, pikas, and waterfowl became huge – and then small predators like gymnures and carnivorous birds also grew to keep up with the increasing size of their prey.

One of the strangest residents of the island(s) was Hoplitomeryx, an early type of ruminant that resembled a deer or pronghorn. Nicknamed the “prongdeer”, it had a total of five horns on its head and large protruding fangs similar to some modern deer.

Multiple species of Hoplitomeryx have been identified, representing four different size classes ranging from huge down to tiny insular dwarfs. The largest is estimated to have been similarly sized to modern moose, standing around 2m tall at the shoulder (6′6″), while the smallest would have been under 50cm (1′8″).

Each of these size classes was specialized for slightly different ecological niches, eating different types of vegetation to avoid directly competing with each other for the limited amount of food on the island.

Island Weirdness #09 – Hatzegopteryx thambema

There are no big theropod dinosaurs known from the end-Cretaceous Hațeg Island ecosystem, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t any large carnivores at all.

The apex predator niche here instead seems to have been occupied by Hatzegopteryx, an enormous azhdarchid pterosaur. Standing up to 4.5m tall (14’9″) when on the ground, and with an estimated wingspan rivaling Quetzalcoatlus (~11m / 36′), it was one of the largest animals to ever fly – although like other azhdarchids it probably actually spent most of its time stalking around quadrupedally on the ground eating whatever it could fit into its mouth.

Its neck was shorter and chunkier than most other azhdarchids, and its skull was wider and more massively built. The walls of its hollow bones were also unusually thick and reinforced for a pterosaur, so much so that they were initially mistaken for those of a theropod instead.

Fossils of Hatzegopteryx are very fragmentary, however, so its full appearance and the specifics of its diet are still uncertain. But it would have probably been able to tackle much larger prey than other azhdarchids, possibly capable of using its sturdy beak to bludgeon or stab anything too big to pick up and swallow whole in a similar manner to modern marabou storks.

Island Weirdness #04 – Gargantuavis philoinos

By far the biggest island in the Late Cretaceous European archipelago, the Ibero-Armorican island (sometimes also known as the Ibero-Occitan island) was made up of most of the Iberian Peninsula and France and was larger than modern-day Madagascar.

Around 73-71 million years ago one of the residents of this island was the aptly-named Gargantuavis – the largest known Mesozoic bird, and probably an example of island gigantism.

Although only known from a few isolated bones, it’s estimated to have been slightly larger than a modern cassowary, somewhere in the region of 2m tall (6′6″). At that size it would have also been secondarily flightless, which is surprising for a bird that was living alongside larger fast-moving theropods like abelisaurs.

Not much else is known about it due to the scarce remains, but it seems to have had a long slender neck and probably had a small head. Its hips were fairly broad, suggesting it wasn’t capable of running very fast, and it was likely a slow-moving herbivore that was a fairly rare member of its ecosystem.

Exactly where it belongs in the bird evolutionary tree is also unclear, with the best current guess being “some sort of euornithean”.