Island Weirdness #34 — Heracles inexpectatus

New Zealand is probably one of the most famous modern examples of a unique island ecosystem, having been isolated for the last 80 million years. Lacking any living terrestrial mammals, birds instead became the dominant land animals, adapting to a wide range of niches and evolving unusual flightless forms like the modern kiwi and kākāpō.

The St Bathans fossil site on the South Island dates to the early Miocene, about 19 to 16 million years ago, just after a period known as the “Oligocene drowning” when large portions of the landmass were underwater. It gives us a glimpse of an ancient version of New Zealand when the ecosystem was recovering and rapidly diversifying in a then-subtropical climate, and has produced a wide range of new fossil species (including a mysterious mammal).

One of the most recent discoveries from the site is Heracles inexpectatus, a close relative of the modern New Zealand parrots — but significantly larger than any living species, estimated to have stood almost 1m tall (3’3″). Known from just a few leg bones, the fossils were so big that they initially weren’t even recognized as belonging to a parrot, instead being mistaken for a large eagle before their true nature was realized.

At such a size it would likely have been flightless, although it may have still been capable of climbing trees and gliding. Much like the modern kea it was probably an omnivore, using its large curved beak and powerful crunching bite to eat pretty much whatever it wanted.

By the late Miocene, around 13 million years ago, New Zealand’s climate rapidly shifted cooler and drier, and the tropical forests were quickly replaced with temperate ones. This changing habitat may have been too much too fast for the giant parrots to deal with, and they went extinct alongside many of the other St Bathans species.

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.