Dr KARL SHUKER

Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. Author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), and more recently Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), and Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), his many fans have been badgering him to join the blogosphere for years. The CFZ Blog Network is proud to have finally persuaded him to do so.

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Wednesday, 14 July 2010

THE LAST HARPAGORNIS?

Reconstruction of Harpagornis moorei (Markus Bühler)

Weighing 22-33 lb in adult female specimens, Haast’s eagle Harpagornis moorei, formerly native to New Zealand’s South Island, was the largest eagle of all time, and is widely accepted as the origin of traditional Maori legends referring to a monstrous human-killing raptorial bird known variously as the pouakai or hokioi. As it is believed to have preyed upon the very large flightless moas that also once inhabited South Island, it should come as no surprise to learn that this colossal bird of prey’s disappearance seemingly coincided with the demise of the moas (caused in turn by hunting and habitat destruction by humans), with its official extinction date estimated at approximately 1400 AD. Very recently, however, while browsing the Wikipedia entry for this species, I discovered a remarkable snippet of information suggesting that either Harpagornis itself or else another now-extinct but very sizeable bird of prey endemic to New Zealand may have lingered into much more recent times, only to be extinguished in the most demeaning manner:

"A noted explorer, Charles Douglas, claims in his journals that he had an encounter with two raptors of immense size in Landsborough River valley (probably during the 1870s), and that he shot and ate them. These birds might have been a last remnant of the species, but some might argue that there had not been suitable prey for a population of Haast's eagle to maintain itself for about five hundred years before that date, and nineteenth century Maori lore was adamant that the pouakai was a bird not seen in living memory. Still, Douglas'[s] observations on wildlife generally are trustworthy; a more probable explanation, given that the alleged three-metre wingspan described by Douglas is likely to have been a rough estimate, is that the birds were Eyles'[s] harriers [Circus eylesi]. This was the largest known harrier (the size of a small eagle) — and a generalist predator — and although it is also assumed to have become extinct in prehistoric times, its dietary habits alone make it a more likely candidate for late survival."

If, however, these were the last Haast’s eagles, what an ignominious finale for such a spectacular species – slaughtered and served up as dinner by a hungry Westerner, for whom the chilling age-old Maori legends of murderous winged marauders from the ancient skies were nothing more than quaint fables, despite the very substantial evidence to the contrary that his twin kills had presented not only to his eyes but also to his stomach!

5 comments:

  1. Was the Haast's eagle related to the modern harpy eagle? The picture here seems to somewhat resemble one.

    But speaking of the pouakai, I've been wondering whether the tale of the piasa was at all influenced by this myth. In short, it seems that the familiar legend of the Indian chief Ouatoga and the monster bird didn't appear until the 1830s and stems from one article written by a man who as much as admitted it was fiction! But the tale of the pouakai I've heard also has a similar tale of a native 'sacrificing' himself as a lure to the bird, which is then killed by other natives.

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  2. Hi Andrew, Surprisingly, its closest relatives were the much smaller booted eagle and little eagle, now reclassified as species of the Aquila genus. I was interested that the piasa myth appears to be fictitious. Do you have any references for this, as I'd like to pursue this further? I don't know of any direct link between the piasa story and the NZ pouakai myth, but it is likely that this shared storyline is a universal one, as similar tales appear in legends and myths across cultures and traditions worldwide, just like battles with dragonesque giant reptiles, encounters with deadly water monsters in lakes, rivers, and seas, and so forth. All the best, Karl

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  3. Interesting!

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  4. I thought the hero survived in the legend?

    Also, who is the origin of the blue highlighted text?

    I'm writing something about Haast's Eagle as well, and I wanted to use this (and Sir George Grey's eyewitness's account) for the document.

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  5. As noted in my article, the highlighted blue text is from Wikipedia.

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