Heracles inexpectatus

Heracles inexpectatus is a giant fossil parrot species from New Zealand, assigned to a monotypic genus Heracles, that lived during the early Miocene approximately 16 to 19 million years ago.[2] The species was described from fossils discovered in 2008 at Saint Bathans, Otago, New Zealand. It is believed that the species stood up to 1 m (3 ft 3 in) tall and weighed approximately 7 kg (15 lb). Initial analysis suggests it is from the superfamily Strigopoidea, which consists of three confirmed genera of parrots: Nestor (kea and kaka), Strigops (kakapo) and the fossil Nelepsittacus.

Heracles inexpectatus
Temporal range: Early Miocene 19–16 Ma
Heracles inexpectatus.jpg
comparison of H. inexpectatus and Nelepsittacus minimus
Scientific classification edit
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Psittaciformes
Genus: Heracles
Worthy et al, 2019
H. inexpectatus
Binomial name
Heracles inexpectatus
Worthy, Hand, Archer, et al, 2019[1]

The species was likely flightless, its robust beak could crack open more than the conventional parrot foods of fruit, nuts, and berries.[3] And like the kakapo, Heracles may have used it strong beak to climb trees.[4] It shared its environment with five other species of parrot in the genus Nelepsittacus, as well as dozens of other bird species in the St Bathans Fauna.[4] Heracles inexpectatus is the largest parrot known to have existed.[5] Media releases described the new species as the "Hercules parrot"[4] and reported the nickname given by the palaeontologist Mike Archer of "squawkzilla".[5][6]


The description of a new species and genus was published in 2019, emerging from research undertaken by Trevor Worthy, Suzanne Hand, Mike Archer, R. Paul Scofield and Vanesa L. De Pietri. Heracles inexpectatus was described from two incomplete tibiotarsi (leg bones), a left one and a right one, probably from the same individual. The left bone was nominated as the holotype. The fossils were originally presumed to be from an eagle,[6] but were re-inspected after a PhD student at Flinders University noted that the bone morphology was significantly different from typical eagles.[7]

The etymology of the generic epithet Heracles alludes to the earlier naming of a genus, Nelepsittacus, also describing St Bathan Fauna, which referred to a mythic king Neleus who was slain by the Greek hero Herakles, who also slew all of his sons, save for Nestor. The authors distinguished the new species with the epithet inexpectatus to describe their astonishment at the unexpected discovery of an enormous parrot-like bird from the Miocene epoch.[1]


The largest known species of Psittaciformes, which comprises the modern parrots and cockatoos, it is estimated to have been around one metre in height, with a body mass of seven kilograms, and presumed to have been flightless, terrestrial and perhaps arboreal. Island gigantism has been observed in other orders of birds, especially in New Zealand and Fiji, but this species exceeds the proportions of any extant or fossil species of the parrot order. The previously known record for size was the arboreal and nocturnal Strigops habroptilus, the kakapo of modern New Zealand.[4]

The fossilised tarsi were deposited in a rich and mixed assemblage of animal remains, including other large species of Aves such as the moa, anatids and an eagle, the bones of which are usually fragmented. The type material of Heracles inexpectatus is the longest evidence obtained at the site, which rarely produces fossil longer than 100 millimetres. The time of deposition is determined as sixteen to nineteen million years ago, in an area associated with a freshwater lacustrine system, in wet forest dominated by cycad, palm and casuarina species, along with a diverse array of other avian fauna.[1] The species appears to have occupied a niche in the region's ecology, unfilled by mammals, that favoured the insular gigantism exhibited by some other avian species of the region.[4]


  1. ^ a b c Worthy, Trevor H.; Hand, Suzanne J.; Archer, Michael; Scofield, R. Paul; De Pietri, Vanesa L. (2019). "Evidence for a giant parrot from the early Miocene of New Zealand". Biology Letters. 15 (8). doi:10.1098/rsbl.2019.0467.
  2. ^ Howard, Jenny (2019-08-06). "This toddler-size parrot was a prehistoric oddity". National Geographic. Archived from the original on 2019-08-12. Retrieved 2019-08-12.
  3. ^ "Ancient parrot half the size of humans discovered in New Zealand". CTV News. Agence France-Presse. 7 August 2019. Retrieved 7 August 2019.
  4. ^ a b c d e Weule, Genelle (7 August 2019). "Fossils of metre-tall giant parrot dubbed Heracles found in New Zealand". ABC Science. Retrieved 8 August 2019.
  5. ^ a b "NZ big bird a whopping 'squawkzilla'" (Press release). Scoop. Flinders University. Retrieved 7 August 2019.
  6. ^ a b Howard, J. (6 August 2019). "This toddler-size parrot was a prehistoric oddity". Science & Innovation. National Geographic. Retrieved 9 August 2019.
  7. ^ Robson, Sarah (9 August 2019). "Giant parrot discovery thanks to an eagle-eyed university student". RNZ. Retrieved 9 August 2019.

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