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Ancient New Zealand Eagle Was A Predator

September 12, 2009

An ancient eagle that once ruled the skies above New Zealand appears to have been a predator, and may have fed on human flesh, researchers said Friday.

Writing in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Ken Ashwell of the University of New South Wales in Australia and Paul Scofield of the Canterbury Museum in New Zealand reported that the Haast’s eagle was a predatory creature.

“This science supports Maori [native New Zealander] mythology of the legendary pouakai or hokioi, a huge bird that could swoop down on people in the mountains and was capable of killing a small child,” said Scofield.

The large bird became extinct about 500 years ago, and weighed about 40 pounds.

Scientists previously considered the Haast’s eagle to be a simple scavenger, rather than a predator.

Ashwell and Scofield used CT and CAT scans to determine the size of the eagle’s brain, eyes, ears and spinal cord.

Researchers compared their findings to measurements of modern predator birds and scavenger birds. Their comparison led them to conclude that the Haast’s eagle was, in fact, a predatory bird.

“This work is a great example of how rapidly evolving medical techniques and equipment can be used to solve ancient mysteries,” said Ashwell.

“The fossils are very valuable and you can’t just cut into the skull to look at the brain,” said Scofield. “So by using nondestructive techniques, you can get a much better idea of the neurobiology of these animals.”

Image Courtesy John Megahan – PLoS Biology

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