The Eagle That Could Have Devoured Your Child

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Believe it or not, the headline is not an exaggeration – scientists have recently determined that a recently extinct species of eagle found in New Zealand only a short few hundred years ago could well have feasted on the occasional human child.

This raptor, formally known as the Haast’s Eagle, was much larger than modern eagles and would have weighed in at about 18 kilograms (that’s roughly 40 pounds).  They became extinct roughly 500 years ago due to habitat destruction and overhunting in New Zealand after its colonization by early Polynesian settlers , much like the Moa before it.  Haast’s eagles lived in the mountains and recent developments in imaging sciences lead scientists to believe that they were predators rather than the scavengers previously thought.

Computed Axial Tomography (better known as CAT) scans were used on several fossil skulls, beaks, and a pelvis. These sophisticated scans allowed scientists at the University of New South Wales in Australia to solve the mystery surrounding these giant birds of prey.  By using such scanning methodology, these experts were able to examine the fossils in depth without destroying them – in the past, in order to get such a good look at the structure of the birds’ bodies, fossils would have to be cut into and severely damaged.

The team looks at the size of the bird’s eyes, brain, ears, and spinal cord along with several other features in reaching their conclusions.  By comparing their findings with what we know about existing bird species, both predatory and scavenger, they were able to show that the birds were fearsome predators, swooping down on unsuspecting prey much like eagles do now – only up to about ten times the size. They determined that the Haast’s eagles evolved rapidly from small predator bird similar to modern eagles, meaning that their bodies grew quickly larger but their brains did not.

Because of the characteristics of the eagles, it is now believed that these eagles were capable of taking down prey much larger than that of the modern eagle.  Imagine a bird ten times the size of the bald eagle – capable of taking down a deer or even a human child.  One cannot help but wonder if legends of gryphons and sphinx came from similar animals, which unbelievably existed during the same time as humans!

Quite interestingly, there are still folk tales and legends among surviving descendant tribes from those initial Polynesian settlers of a huge bird, the ‘hokioi,’ which would descend from the mountains and steal and eat small children.

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