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Legendary Human-Eating Bird Was Real, Probably Could Have Eaten People

In Maori legend, Te Hokioi was a giant bird that preyed on children, and science says that’s probably the truth

(Ancient DNA Tells Story of Giant Eagle Evolution. PLoS Biol 3(1): e20. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0030020)

There are a lot of myths about dangerous mythical creatures, from sirens to the Kraken to the hydra, some of which preyed upon humans. In Maori legend, Te Hokioi was a giant black-and-white bird, with a red crest and huge beak. And just like the Kraken was probably based on a real creature—the giant squid—Te Hokioi was probably a real bird.

That bird would be a Haast eagle, extinct for just 500 years, according to a study in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. Scientists have had the bones of the Haast eagle for over 100 years and have done genetic studies on the giant eagle before, so they know that it existed. The question was how—and what—it ate. Did it really come down from the sky to snatch up prey (including people), or was it a scavenger? Could it fly long distances, or only short ones? Did it live in the forest on in the mountains?

Without live animals to observe, these sorts of things can be hard to really prove. These researchers used CT scans to reconstruct the brain, eyes, ears and spinal cord of the ancient eagle, and compared their results to modern day birds. What they found was that the Haast eagle’s anatomy puts it more clearly in the predator camp than the scavenger one. It seems that the eagle swooped down from mountain perches to snatch its prey.

In Maori legend, that prey was sometimes a child, and Paul Scofield, lead researcher on the study, says that’s probably the truth. “This science supports Māori mythology of the legendary pouakai or hokioi, a huge bird that could swoop down on people in the mountains and was capable of killing a small child,” he said. “They had the ability to not only strike with their talons but to close the talons and put them through quite solid objects such as a pelvis. It was designed as a killing machine,” he told the Independent.

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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