A new study shows that New Zealand’s giant – and now extinct – Haast’s eagle ruled the skies until 500 years ago, swooping down on moa.
Scientists have known about the existence of Haast’s eagle since 1871 based on excavated bones, including bones carved by early Maori, but their behaviour was not entirely clear.
Because of their large size – they weighed up to 18kg with wingspans up to 3m – some scientists believed they were scavengers rather than predators.
Earlier research has indicated the eagle had enough strength in its talons to kill a moa weighing 180kg, attacking at up to 80kph, or even to attack a human child.
The latest study throwing new light on this was published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
Researchers Dr Paul Scofield, curator of vertebrates at the Canterbury Museum, and Professor Ken Ashwell of the University of New South Wales used computerised CT and CAT scans to reconstruct the size of the brain, eyes, ears and spinal cord of the Haast’s eagle.
These details were compared to values from modern predatory and scavenging birds to determine the habits of the extinct eagle.
“This work is a great example of how rapidly evolving medical techniques and equipment can be used to solve ancient mysteries,” said Dr Ashwell.