haast's eagle, haast's eagle moa, haast's eagle predator
PLoS Biology 3(1) (2005)
Giant Haast’s eagle attacking New Zealand moa. Art by John Megahan.

Legend of Man-Eating Raptor Confirmed by Paleontologists

September 16, 2009 07:00 AM
by Haley A. Lovett
New Zealand legends of a man-eating bird may actually have substance, as scientists say that Haast’s eagle, a giant bird extinct for 500 years, was a predator, not a scavenger.

CAT Scans Help Solve Mystery of Giant Winged Predator

A study published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology found that the Haast’s eagle would have preyed on the large, flightless moa bird once found in New Zealand, but may also have been capable of snatching human children.

Haast’s eagle was discovered by Sir Julius von Haast in the late 1800s. According to The Independent, the bird became extinct about 500 years ago, likely after humans killed the moa population on which it fed. The bird would have weighed about 40 pounds, and its size and nostril design initially led scientists to believe it was a scavenger.

The authors of the study, Ken Ashwell of the University of New South Wales and Paul Scofield of the Canterbury Museum, used CAT scans to look closely at the bones of Haast’s eagle; they found that the eagle would have had a strong enough bone structure to dive at prey and kill it.  

The researchers also found that the bird probably evolved to its massive size quite quickly from a smaller ancestor, and according to Michael Casey of The Associated Press, the bird’s brain lagged behind its body in that growth spurt. 

Background: Evolution on islands and delicate island ecosystems

New Zealand researcher Jamie R. Wood told AP that Haast’s eagle, by quickly evolving and adapting to the giant prey present on the island, is “one of the most dramatic examples anywhere of how rapidly evolution can occur on islands.”

It was on the Galapagos Islands that Charles Darwin observed distinct, adaptive differences in species from one island to another, leading to his theory of natural selection and later his book, “The Origin of Species.”

When new species are introduced to an island population, it can often have devastating results for the native plant and animal populations. Such was the case for Haast’s eagle and the moa when humans arrived on New Zealand’s South Island.

The Australian island of Macquarie has struggled to find a balance between native species and those introduced by humans. Rabbits were first brought to the island by hunters and began destroying the island’s vegetation; cats were later introduced and helped to control the rabbit population, but also ate local birds; when the cats were eliminated form the island in 2000 as part of an effort to save the birds, the rabbit population again grew. The resultant destruction of vegetation now threatens the birds once again. 

Related Stories: Other recent fossil finds

Australia has recently seen a slew of new dinosaur fossil discoveries. In July of this year, three new species of dinosaur were found on the island nation, including the first large predator to be found in Australia.

The 2008 fossil discovery in Latvia of a creature that seemed to be adapted for land and water—with a head like a land dwelling creature but with flipper-like appendages—shed more light on the water-to-land evolution process. The species, Ventastega curonica, would have lived about 365 million years ago.

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