Researchers discover the largest parrot in the world

Primeval parrot was one meter tall and could have been a carnivore

Against him the small sparrow-birds act like ants at his feet: Thus the newly discovered giant-parrot could have looked Heracles inexpectatus during his lifetime. © Brian Choo / Flinders University
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Spectacular find: Paleontologists have discovered in New Zealand the only and largest giant parrot in the world - as a fossil. The approximately one-meter-tall bird lived 16 to 19 million years ago and was twice as heavy as the largest living parrot today, as the researchers in the journal "Biology Letters" report. With its mighty beak, the Heracles inexpectatus baptized giant parrot may have killed and devoured even other birds.

Thousands of years ago, when the first Maori reached New Zealand, they encountered huge, two and a half meters of ratites - the Moas. These giant birds, extinct today, are, like the Dodos of Mauritius, classic examples of the island gigantism of the birds: they developed unusual large forms there because of the isolation of the islands were missing large predators. On New Zealand existed especially in the early Miocene, 16 to 19 million years ago, a whole flock of different giant birds, as fossil finds prove.

"Not only Moas dominated the bird world. At the forest floor, giant geese and the crane-like Aptornis were running around, while in the sky a giant eagle ruled the skies, "explains Trevor Worthy of Flinders University in Australia.

Size comparison of magpie, human and the giant parrot Heracles inexpectatus. © Paul Scofield / Canterbury Museum

A parrot of one meter in size

Now Worthy and his team have discovered another unexpected representative of the New Zealand giant birds. In the well-known fossil deposit St Bathans in the south of the New Zealand South Island they came across two lower leg bones, which could not be assigned to any of the already known prehistoric birds s. The 16 to 19-million-year-old bones showed instead several typical features of the parrot's birds.

"We conclude that these fossils must come from a parrot, " Worthy and his colleagues report. From the measurements of the leg bones, they conclude that the newly discovered parrot species must have been one meter tall and weighed about seven kilograms. This bird was about twice as large and heavy as the New Zealand Kakapo, the largest parrot alive today. display

First proof of gigantism in parrots

"So far, no one has ever found an extinct giant parrot anywhere, " says Worthy. Because this find was both large and completely unexpected, the researchers christened the nine-tailed bird Heracles inexpectatus. "This giant parrot demonstrates that the parrots now also belong to the growing group of bird species that can develop a gigantism on islands, " say the palaeontologists.

The area where the giant parrot lived was covered by a species-rich subtropical forest in the Miocene. In addition to more than 40 species of birds turtles, crocodiles, bats and other mammals, as fossil finds reveal. Palm trees, stone disks and other trees probably supplied their fruits with rich food for the giant parrot and its contemporaries.

Was Heracles a carnivore?

But how exactly Heracles looked, whether he could fly and how he lived is still unknown. So far, despite the fossil richness of the site, researchers have discovered only the remains of a single specimen of this giant parrot. That might indicate that Heracles was not a very common species during his lifetime. "Its rarity in this encampment is something we would expect if Heracles stood higher up the food chain, " says co-author Mike Archer of the University of New South Wales, Sydney.

But that means the giant parrot might not use its powerful beak to crack fruit peels: "He might have eaten something other than the classic parrot diet, maybe even other parrots." says Archer. Because parrots are known for their adaptability to feed. "The New Zealand keas, for example, have developed a taste for sheep meat since the introduction of sheep by European settlers in 1773, " explains the palaeontologist.

More fossils needed

Whether the giant parrot was indeed meat fra or even a bird of prey, however, so far is pure speculation. His lifestyle and dietary habits will not be cleared until the paleontologists have found more, more complete fossils of this giant bird. Worthy and his team also do not exclude that among the fossils of St Bathans in addition to the giant parrot hide other surprises:

"Heracles is one of the most spectacular birds we found there, " says Worthy. "But there is no doubt that there are many more unexpected species to discover in this interesting deposit." (Royal Society Biology Letters, 2019; doi: 10.1098 / rsbl.2019.0467)

Source: Flinders University

- Nadja Podbregar