Trevor H. Worthy, The Conversation
Say hello to Heracles inexpectatus, a parrot the size of a human child.
But don’t worry, you won’t meet one face-to-face.
Our new discovery lived around 20 million years ago in what is now New Zealand — adding to the islands’ rich and storied collection of remarkable bird species.
Heracles was truly a giant among birds, The Conversationreports.
It was about one metre long, stood 80-90cm tall, and weighed about 7kg. That makes it about the same size as a dodo, and far bigger than its modern-day cousin, the kākāpō. Unsurprisingly, given its heft, it was likely also flightless.
We discovered Heracles in the St Bathans Fauna, a collection of 20 million-year-old fossils from Central Otago.
Over the past 20 years, our research has discovered around 40 species from the St Bathans Fauna, including a wealth of fascinating prehistoric bird remains. These include eggshell and fragments of moa ancestors, a tiny kiwi, many ducks, a couple of pigeons, flightless rails, hawks and eagles, shorebirds, songbirds, and several small parrot species. Crocodilians, turtles, bats and even rare land mammals complete this eclectic group.
Heracles now reveals that another avian giant existed in this fauna. For the first and only time since, a giant parrot occupied the herbivore/omnivore niche on a forest floor.
emarkably, the fragments of bone that allowed us to discover this giant parrot had sat on a shelf since 2008, patiently waiting for their turn to be described. We had known that St Bathans also contains eagle fossils of similar size, so the Heracles fossils were put on the eagle pile while we waited to find some more fossils that might tell us more.
But upon pulling them out and looking more closely, it was immediately clear that these were not eagle bones, so we started trying to work out what they were. Parrots were not on our radar at first, purely because these bones were far larger than those of any known parrot. But after a while the bones told their story — they were of a parrot, and nothing else was remotely similar. Moreover, they were in some ways fairly similar to the kākāpō.
And so Heracles inexpectatus was born, the name derived from Greek mythology.
So what was a giant parrot doing in ancient New Zealand? What did it eat? Could it have had a taste for meat, as the kea still does? These mountain parrots prey on the chicks of burrowing petrels and are notorious for attacking sheep.
But in New Zealand 20 million years ago there were no sheep, and in fact no large mammals at all. Probably, like most parrots, Heracles ate plants. Its size meant no fruit was too big, no nut too tough to crack. And the botanical evidence shows that it lived in a rich and diverse subtropical forest, where cycads, palms, casuarinas and up to 60 species of laurels thrived.
All these plants would have provided a rich bounty for this large parrot. But we warrant that it likely still snacked on moa occasionally, as kea still did more recently, when they got mired in swamps.
Trevor H. Worthy is an Associate Professor and leading vertebrate palaeontologist at Flinders University. Continue the conversation | firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared in The Conversation and is republished here with permission