A team of researchers led by Flinders University in Australia has recently discovered and described the largest bird of prey that ever lived on the Australian continent – an eagle twice the size of the modern-day apex predator the wedge-tailed eagle, named by the experts Dynatoaetus gaffae (Gaff’s powerful eagle).
Closely related to Old World vultures of Asia and Africa, as well as to the critically endangered monkey-eating or Philippine Eagle, this now extinct raptor soared over southern Australia in the late Pleistocene 60,000 years ago. It had a wingspan extending to up to three meters and powerful talons wide enough to easily grab a small kangaroo or koala.
The researchers discovered a variety of large fossil bones scattered across the Flinders Ranges, the Naracoorte and Wellington Caves, and near Cooper Creek in the Lake Eyre Basin.
“We were very excited to find many more bones from much of the skeleton to create a better picture and description of these magnificent long-lost giant extinct birds,” said study lead author Ellen Mather, a paleontologist at Flinders.
“This discovery reveals that this incredible family of birds was once much more diverse in Australia, and that raptors were also impacted by the mass extinction that wiped out most of Australia’s megafauna.”
“It was ‘humongous’ – larger than any other eagle from other continents, and almost as large as the world’s largest eagles once found on the islands of New Zealand and Cuba, including the whopping extinct 13kg Haast’s eagle of New Zealand,” added senior author Trevor Worthy, an associate professor of Vertebrate Paleontology at the same university.
“It had giant talons, spreading up to 30cm, which easily would have been able to dispatch a juvenile giant kangaroo, large flightless bird, or other species of lost megafauna from that era, including the young of the world’s largest marsupial Diprotodon and the giant goanna Varanus priscus.”
According to the researchers, this massive predator most likely coexisted with still living species such as the wedge-tailed eagle. Considering that the Australian birds of prey used to be more diverse, the fact that the wedge-tailed eagle managed to coexist with the giant Dynatoaetus without being outcompeted could mean that its habitat and feeding grounds were more limited in the past.
Dynatoaetus is estimated to have become extinct during the time of the megafaunal mass extinction peaking around 50,000 years ago, which marked a drastic decline in the diversity and function of Australian raptors.
An in-depth description of this eagle is published in the Journal of Ornithology.
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