Scientists are adding a new creature to a list of giant, prehistoric animals that were previously unknown: The Heracles inexpectus, a supersize parrot, estimated to have been as tall as a small human child, was discovered by Australian researchers in New Zealand, according to a study published in Biology Letters.
Bones of the bird, somewhere between 16 and 19 million years old, were discovered in a now extinct lake in St. Bathans in 2008. But the fossilized tibiotarsi, essentially the bird's drumsticks, sat on a shelf for nearly a decade before a graduate student took a closer look. She realized the bones had been misidentified as an enormous, possibly human-eating eagle — which wouldn't have been groundbreaking in the ornithological world, Trevor Worthy, the study's lead researcher, told NPR.
Instead, Worthy, who is a paleontologist at Flinders University, figured out the leg bones are evidence of the largest parrot known to science — now nicknamed "Squawkzilla."
"The realization that these were parrots was astonishing, because nowhere has such a large parrot been found before," Worthy said. Prior to his discovery, New Zealand's kakapo was believed to be the largest.
The research team concluded the flightless parrot weighed 15 pounds and stood about 3 feet tall.
Michael Archer, a paleontologist at the University of New South Wales who was also involved in the study, remarked that the bird's stature would make it "able to pick the lint out of your bellybutton."
The study notes gigantism is not uncommon on islands and specifically New Zealand, where scientists have been digging up the remains of outsize animals since the early 19th century, including giant moa, which were wiped out after humans arrived there in the 14th century.
Allison Shultz, associate curator of ornithology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, told NPR the Heracles' story fits the pattern of what has happened to bird species over the ages: "They get to an island, lose the ability to fly and get really big."
However, Shultz noted the bird fossil record is "fairly poor compared to the mammal fossil record because birds don't fossilize very well."
One of the reasons she gave is that bird bones are much less dense than mammal bones, making them more fragile and more likely to break down rather than fossilize.
"So anytime we can add to the bird story, it's pretty exciting," she added.
Research suggests the parrot survived mostly on what was then lush, tropical vegetation that covered the region during the Miocene era. But it probably feasted on more substantive meals.
"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," said the study's co-author, professor Mike Archer, in a statement.
Worthy added it very likely had few, if any, real predators. "It lived with a similar-sized eagle, and the adzebill Aptornis, but at most these would have preyed on its chicks or eggs," he said.
"Likewise there was a crocodile in the fauna, but one expects a parrot to be more clever than those and unlikely to be caught very often," Worthy added.