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World’s largest parrot discovered in New Zealand

An artist’s depiction of the giant parrot Heracles, dwarfing a bevy of 8cm high Kuiornis — small New Zealand wrens scuttling about on the forest floor. Image by Brian Choo/Flinders University

Palaeontologists in New Zealand have discovered the world’s largest parrot, a long-extinct bird that stood up to 1 meter (3.3 feet) tall, weighed about 7 kg (15.4 lbs.), and had a massive beak.

The new bird has been named Heracles inexpectatus to reflect its Herculean mythlike size and strength — and the unexpected nature of the discovery.

“New Zealand is well known for its giant birds,” says Trevor Worthy, an associate professor at Flinders University, and the lead author of a paper announcing the discovery. “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.”

The fossil is approximately twice the size of New Zealand’s critically endangered flightless 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.

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

Heracles inexpectatus silhouette next to an average height person and common magpie. Image by Professor Paul Scofield, Canterbury Museum

“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.”

In 2007, for example, Worthy led a team that announced the discovery of 23 newly described bird species from the St. Bathans region.

“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,” says Professor Mike Archer, from the University of New South Wales-Sydney.

“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, another giant pigeon was found on Fiji, a giant stork on Flores, giant ducks in Hawaii, giant megapodes in New Caledonia and Fiji, and giant owls and other raptors in the Caribbean. 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 a professor 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, 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 discovery was announced in the journal Biology Letters.

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