The remains of an ancient eagle have been uncovered in South Australia, with speculation the not-so-cute killer bird lived a lavish life, feasting on the likes of koalas and possums over 25 million years ago.
A team from Flinders University discovered the remains of the ancient eagle, Archaehierax (pron. ah-kay-hi-rax) sylvestris, on the shore of a dry lake known as Lake Pinpa at a remote outback cattle station in South Australia. Overall, the team had to piece together 63 elements and associated fragments of a single skeleton they found. The palaeontologists say the remains were pretty well-preserved, considering.
The eagle is believed to have lived during the late Oligocene – speculated to be inhabited also by the last of the dinosaurs. It’s considered the period 33.9 million to 23 million years before the present. The Archaehierax sylvestris, based on the ancient Greek for ‘ancient hawk of the forest’, is believed to be one of the oldest eagle-like raptors in the world.
Ellen Mather, a PhD student and lead author of the study published today in the journal Historical Biology, said it’s rare to find even one bone from a fossil eagle. Having most of the skeleton is pretty exciting, especially considering how old it is.
This species was slightly smaller and leaner than the wedge-tailed eagle, Mather explains, but it’s the largest eagle known from this time period in Australia.
The eagle’s foot span was nearly 15cm long, which would have allowed it to grasp large prey. The largest marsupial predators at the time were about the size of a small dog or large cat, so Archaehierax was certainly ruling the roost. Yikes.
“The fossil bones reveal that the wings of Archaehierax were short for its size, much like species of forest-dwelling eagles today. Its legs, in contrast, were relatively long and would have given it considerable reach,” Mather adds.
“The combination of these traits suggest Archaehierax was an agile but not particularly fast flier and was most likely an ambush hunter. It was one of the top terrestrial predators of the late Oligocene, swooping upon birds and mammals that lived at the time.”
Researchers say the majestic bird would have hunted koalas, possums and other animals in trees surrounding a vast shallow lake, on which waterfowl, cormorants and flamingos were abundant. Double yikes.