New Zealand was a land of ancient big birds

A pair of fossils reveal both the largest parrot and penguin species ever known
big birds parrot The largest parrot ever known was likely too heavy to fly. (Illustration Brian Choo)


When you hear the word "bird" — and in this post, bird is the word — chances are that you think of something relatively small and perch-on-your-arm-able.

A finch. A budgie. Even a chicken, owl, or falcon could hang out in your arms or on your shoulder.

But birds don't just come pint-sized. Ostriches and emus are big birds. And over the course of history, they've been downright massive.

For further proof, just take a trip to the southern country of New Zealand. This is where a pair of record-setting bird fossils were recently confirmed. One of a parrot the size of a 3-year-old kid. The other of a penguin the size of an adult woman.

Big birds indeed!

Parrot packs a punch

Embed from Getty Images

A modern kakapo — today's heaviest parrot. (Getty Embed)

Let's begin with the parrot. When the bones of Heracles inexpectatus (say HEHR-ah-klees ihn-EX-pehk-tah-tuhs) were first found in 2008, researchers thought it might have been some kind of prehistoric eagle. But new research confirms that it was a species of parrot that existed around 23 to 16 million years ago.

Coincidentally, the world's largest living parrot actually does live in New Zealand — the kakapo. But this bird is still just half the size of H. inexpectatus — that prehistoric bird was about 1 metre (3 feet) tall and weighed about 7 kilograms (15 pounds). Its bones were solid and likely made the bird too heavy to fly. But its large beak would've meant that it likely didn't need to fly away from a fight!

Not your average penguin

big birds penguin

An illustration showing the estimated size of this penguin fossil, next to an average adult woman. (Canterbury University)

Unless, of course, it ever came across Crossvallia waiparensis (say kruhss-VAH-lee-ah WAY-pahr-ehn-sis) — the largest penguin ever known. (Yikes!) Fortunately for the parrot, this enormous 1.6-metre (5-foot 3-inch) penguin lived at a much earlier time, between 66 and 56 million years ago.

It was not only 40 cm (over 1 foot) taller than an emperor penguin, it was much heavier, too. Four times as heavy, experts estimate, making it a robust bird indeed! So why so mighty?

If you're keeping score at home, then you know that 66 million years ago is when the dinosaurs — as well as all of the massive marine reptileswent extinct. In the wake of this catastrophe, many environments were ready to be conquered by new species. Paleontologists think that this was the age of the giant penguin — for millions of years, huge penguins were major ocean predators.

Does this mean that there might be even larger penguins waiting to be discovered? Or parrots for that matter? A 15-foot tall parrot/penguin hybrid that ate sharks and had a vocabulary of over a hundred words? Whatever the truth is, we're pretty happy that modern penguins and parrots are just the way that they are!


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