Haast’s Eagle Was Big & Strong Enough to Prey on Humans

December 21, 2012

Science

haasts-eagle-moa

Reconstruction of predation by Haast’s Eagle (Harpagornis moorei) on South Island giant moa (Dinornis robustus). Credit Original artwork by Ray Jacobs/Canterbury Museum.

The strongest and biggest bird of prey that ever existed was the Haast’s Eagle (Harpagornis moorei) of New Zealand, and it became extinct around the 1400s soon after the Maori settled the South Island of New Zealand.

H. moorei was powerful enough to attack and prey on giant flightless birds, the moa, weighing 10 to 15 times their own body weight. Comparatively to its body size, the Haast’s Eagle’s wingspan was short, at about 9 feet. It’s believed that the raptor would swoop down at speeds of nearly 50 mph to attack the moa. It used its talons to kill them on the ground and didn’t carry off its prey.

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Haast’s Eagle hunting moa. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

It’s believed that the Haast’s Eagle and moa evolved due to island gigantism, a phenomenon in which animals isolated from other, more diverse populations, end up much larger than they would be on mainland. When the Maori first arrived in New Zealand, there were no land animals. Birds and reptiles evolved to fill up these empty ecological niches that would have been typically filled up by larger mammals.

Evolutionarily speaking, Haast’s Eagle took the place of the apex predator that hunted grazers, a space taken up by the moa species. When the Maori hunted the moa to extinction in the 1400s, barely a century after their arrival, there was no prey large enough to sustain the Haast’s Eagles, so they became extinct quickly.

No evidence has been found that Haast’s Eagle preyed on humans, but researchers believe it was big and strong enough to do so.

haasts-eagle-skull

Skull of a Haast’s Eagle specimen.

[via PopSci]

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