Red Rail, Aphanapteryx bonasia

The Red Rail (Aphanapteryx bonasia) is an extinct and flightless rail. It was native to the Mascarene island of Mauritius, east of Madagascar within the Indian Ocean. It had a close relative on Rodrigues Island, the likewise extinct Rodrigues Rail, with which it’s sometimes considered congeneric. Its relationship with other rail isn’t clear. Rails frequently evolve flightlessness when adapting to isolated islands.

It was slightly larger than a chicken and had reddish and hair-like plumage, with dark colored legs and a long, curved beak. The wings were of small size and its legs were slender for a bird of its size. It was much like to Rodrigues Rail, but was larger and had proportionally shorter wings. It’s believed to have fed on invertebrates and snail shells have been found with damage matching an attack from its beak. Hunters took advantage of the attraction these birds had to red objects by using colored cloth to lure birds so that they could be beaten with sticks.

Until sub fossil remains were described in 1869, scientists only knew the Red Rail from the 17th century descriptions and illustrations. These were thought to represent several different species, which ended up in a large number of invalid junior synonyms. It’s been suggested that all late 17th century accounts of the Dodo actually referred to the Red Rail, after the former had become extinct.

It’s known that the Red Rail was unable to fly. It was somewhat larger than a chicken. The sub fossil specimens range in size, which may indicate sexual dimorphism, which is common among rails. The exact length is not known, but the pelvis was 2.3 inches long, the femur was 2.7 to 2.8 inches, the tibia was 3.8 to 4.5 inches, the tars metatarsus was 3.1 inches, and the humerus was 2.3 to 2.6 inches. The plumage was reddish brown all over and the feathers were fluffy and hair like; the tail was not visible in the living bird and the short wings likewise also nearly disappeared within the plumage. It had a long and slightly curved brown colored bill, and some illustrations suggest it had a nape crest. It perhaps resembled a lightly built Kiwi, and it’s also been likened to a Limpkin, both in appearance and behavior.

The sternum and the humerus were small, indicating that it had lost the power of flight. The legs were long and slender for a bird of large size, but the pelvis was compact and stout.

The diet was never reported, but the shape of the beak indicates it could have captured reptiles and invertebrates. There were many native land snails on Mauritius.

While it was speedy and could escape when chased, it was easily lured by waving a red cloth, which they approached to attack. The birds could then be picked up and the cries would lure more birds to the scene.

Image Caption: The Red Rail or Red Hen of Mauritius, Aphanapteryx bonasia, is an extinct rail. Credit: Frederick William Frohawk/Wikipedia