Picking the bones of Fiji's lost giants
AUCKLAND (AFP-Jiji) Fiji was once a land of giant fauna including a 15-kg flightless, chicken-like bird, a meter-high flightless pigeon and enormous tortoises, recent scientific discoveries reveal.
Then the first people arrived and ate them.
The discoveries, which also included a large crocodile-like land animal, by the Fiji Museum and the Australian National University Central Pacific Colonisation project are causing excitement among experts.
"In my view this is probably the most exciting fauna left to be uncovered in the world. Most of the remote bigger other islands have already been looked at," says project palaeontologist Trevor Worthy of New Zealand.
Scientific work shows that the first Fijians who arrived around 3,000 years ago probably wiped out the giants, which had no mammalian predators before that.
Food middens of the first Fijians are sparse, but Worthy says the bones of a giant megapod had been found in an archaeological site on an island off Suva. "That is unequivocal evidence that they interacted. They survived until people came along."
The islands had a benign climate, even at the end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago.
"People did the whole lot," says Worthy. "While the connecting evidence is yet thin, I think it almost certain that all these species were made extinct by hunting by people 3,000-2,500 years ago.
"When the first Fijians stepped ashore they were greeted by meter-high pigeons and meter-high chickens and meter-and-a-half-long iguanas, and within 50 years they were all gone."
The giants would have been very susceptible to hunting. With no mammalian predators the fauna would have been long-living and slow at reproduction.
The rats which accompanied people would have taken care of 25-cm-long frogs.
Worthy said the project had the leg bones and part of the vertebrae of the still-to-be-named megapod, or chicken-like bird, which would have built mounds on the ground and laid its eggs there.
"The one on Fiji was probably approaching a meter high. We are talking about something about 15 kilos," says Worthy. "It had a reasonably big head and a beak not like a chicken; it had a very high or deep bill, centimeters deep. It was adapted to eat very large fruit."
Nothing like it exists today
Bones of the various giant fauna have also been found in caves near Volivoli outside Sigatoka. Nearby sand dunes have already attracted international attention for signs of the earliest presence of people in Fiji. Erosion is, however, destroying the human evidence.
Worthy says his finds were made in limestone caves. In one site the evidence suggested a deposit was formed by a crocodile-like animal up to 4 meters long, whose prey included giant birds.
Between Suva and Nausori they have also located a jawbone of one of the crocodilian type animals.
The project has yet to fully publish its data, but some of it was outlined early last month at the Pacific Science Congress in Sydney.