Scientists Found a Seriously Giant Parrot Fossil in New Zealand

An artist’s illustration of the giant parrot with a New Zealand wren for comparison.
Illustration: Brian Choo, Flinders University

Scientists have uncovered evidence of an enormous parrot in New Zealand (of course). This Polly doesn’t want a cracker. This Polly wants a whole damn loaf of bread.

Before humans arrived, islands were funhouses when it came to avian evolution, producing giant, often flightless birds. New Zealand may once have been home to a 15-pound, 3-foot-tall parrot, according to new research.

Advertisement

What was it like? “One can only speculate on this from comparing modern relatives,” study author Trevor Worthy, associate professor at Flinders University in Australia, told Gizmodo in an email. “Parrots are clever, able to solve problems. Most are herbivores of one kind or another, but one restricted mainly to the ground likely fed on berries and seeds of the abundant fruit that existed in the forest it lived in.”

Scientists first found the fossils—a pair of partial tibiotarsi—in 2008. Birds have three leg bones as opposed to humans’ two, and the tibiotarsus is the middle one. Though they first thought the bones came from an eagle, according to the paper published in Biology Letters, their shape and proportions seemed more parrot-like. But the bones were much larger than most parrots’ tibiotarsi. This bird may have been twice the size of the kakapo, the heaviest living parrot.

That’s a big parrot!
Illustration: Paul Scofield, Canterbury Museum

They named the bird Heracles inexpectatus, after the unexpected nature of the find as well as the giant size of the bird. The same scientists had previously named a group of extinct parrots the Nelepsittacus (after Neleus from Greek mythology), which are closely related to a group of birds named after Neleus’ son Nestor. In Greek myth, Heracles killed Neleus and all of his sons except for Nestor.

Advertisement

These fossils were first found in Central Otago on the South Island of New Zealand among the St. Bathans fauna. Large bones are rare in this deposit, but it has yielded fossils of moas, a giant eagle, and other parrots. The two leg bones were found in rock dated to 16 million to 19 million years old.

Martin Stervander, postdoctoral fellow at the University of Oregon, found the study convincing. “To an outsider, the science of osteology may seem like reading tea leaves, but these authors are experts and systematically account for the shape of ridges, crests, and depressions on the bones,” he told Gizmodo in an email. “By comparing these features to numerous bones from two vast museum collections, they can point out similarities and differences to all the major bird lineages. The two bones include six unique features that only parrots have, which nails the identification.”

Advertisement

There are limitations, of course. It’s hard to determine where this bird would appear in the parrot family tree with just a pair of leg bones.

Advertisement

But the research helps solidify that large islands without mammalian predators can produce some pretty wacky wildlife, including New Zealand’s famous enormous birds. I can only imagine such a parrot interacting with tourists and New Zealanders today.

Share This Story

About the author

Ryan F. Mandelbaum

Science writer at Gizmodo | I like physics and eating