New Zealand was home to a seriously giant parrot

  Last updated August 8, 2019 at 3:00 pm

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The fossil of a parrot which would have stood a metre tall and weighed up to 7kg has been discovered in New Zealand. Welcome to tonight’s nightmare.


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For those of you who have nightmares of giant birds, this might not be the story for you.


A team of Australasian palaeontologists have discovered the world’s largest parrot, standing up to 1m tall and weighing up to 7kg.


It also had a massive beak able to crack most food sources, including other parrots.


The new bird has been named Heracles inexpectatus to reflect its Herculean myth-like size and strength – and the unexpected nature of the discovery.


“New Zealand is well known for its giant birds,” says Trevor Worth, from Flinders University. “Not only moa dominated avifaunas, but giant geese and adzebills shared the forest floor, while a giant eagle ruled the skies.


“But until now, no-one has ever found an extinct giant parrot – anywhere.”


Heracles is twice the size of the previously known largest parrot


The NZ fossil is approximately the size of the giant ‘dodo’ pigeon of the Mascarenes and twice the size of the critically endangered flightless New Zealand kakapo, previously the largest known parrot.


Like the kakapo, Heracles was a member of an ancient New Zealand group of parrots that appear to be more primitive than parrots that thrive today on Australia and other continents.


Experts from Flinders University, UNSW Sydney and Canterbury Museum in New Zealand estimate Heracles to be 1 m tall, weighing about 7 kg.


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A graphic showing Heracles next to an average height woman and a common magpie. Credit: Professor Paul Scofield, Canterbury Museum


The new parrot was found in fossils up to 19 million years old from near St Bathans in Central Otago, New Zealand, in an area well known for a rich assemblage of fossil birds from the Miocene period.


Back in its time, before climate cooling affected subtropical forests and vegetation, Heracles probably lived with some 40 other species of birds around the lake.


“It was likely a flightless forager who ate abundantly on fruit and seeds but may have preyed on small animals that it could dig out of logs, or even snack on dead or dying moa – like kea still do with sheep.


“We have been excavating these fossil deposits for 20 years, and each year reveals new birds and other animals,” says Worthy.


“While Heracles is one of the most spectacular birds we have found, no doubt there are many more unexpected species yet to be discovered in this most interesting deposit.”


Heracles possibly ate other birds


Mike Archer from the UNSW Palaeontology, Geobiology and Earth Archives (PANGEA) Research Centre says Heracles might have even eaten other birds.


“Heracles, as the largest parrot ever, no doubt with a massive parrot beak that could crack wide open anything it fancied, may well have dined on more than conventional parrot foods, perhaps even other parrots.”


“Its rarity in the deposit is something we might expect if it was feeding higher up in the food chain,” he says, adding parrots “in general are very resourceful birds in terms of culinary interests”.


New Zealand keas, for example, have even developed a taste for sheep since these were introduced by European settlers in 1773.”


Birds have repeatedly evolved giant species on islands. As well as the dodo, there has been another giant pigeon found on Fiji, a giant stork on Flores, giant ducks in Hawaii, giant megapodes in New Caledonia and Fiji, giant owls and other raptors in the Caribbean.


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Main fossil leg bone of the Heracles, above, with kakapo leg bones. Credit: Flinders Univeristy


Heracles lived in a very different place than what we see now


Heracles lived in a diverse subtropical forest where many species of laurels and palms grew with podocarp trees.


“Undoubtedly, these provided a rich harvest of fruit important in the diet of Heracles and the parrots and pigeons it lived with. But on the forest floor Heracles competed with adzebills and the forerunners of moa,” says  Suzanne Hand, also from UNSW Sydney.


“The St Bathans fauna provides the only insight into the terrestrial birds and other animals that lived in New Zealand since dinosaurs roamed the land more than 66 million years ago,” says Paul Scofield, Senior Curator at Canterbury Museum, in Christchurch.


Canterbury Museum research curator Vanesa De Pietri says the fossil deposit reveals a highly diverse fauna typical of subtropical climates with crocodilians, turtles, many bats and other mammals, and over 40 bird species.


“This was a very different place with a fauna very unlike that which survived into recent times,” she says.


The research has been published in the journal Biology Letters.


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