Until 150 years ago, European scientists believed the pouākai was just a myth. But the world’s largest eagle dominated the forested lands of the eastern South Island. Frank Film. Click here to view the video.
Frank Film: From fable to fact – the world’s largest eagle was once thought a mythical creature, Stuff, 30 July 2021
It was a perfect but petrifying predator. A massive bird with a hooked beak, talons like tigers’ claws, and a three-metre wingspan, plummeting down at speeds of up to 80kmh to attack its prey.
Europeans were originally sceptical of Māori stories and whakataukī (proverbs) that told of a giant eagle – the pouākai – attacking moa and carrying away small children.
Those doubts were dashed 150 years ago when Canterbury Museum taxidermist Frederick Fuller found a clutch of unusual bones among some moa remains in a swamp in north Canterbury.
He passed these findings – a leg bone, rib and a couple of claws – on to museum director Julius von Haast, who issued the first scientific description of the bird.
He named it Harpagornis moorei after the Greek word harpax, meaning grappling hook.
In 1873 more bones were discovered, adding to a rare collection now held in an unprepossessing cabinet at Canterbury Museum.
For the first time, says Paul Scofield, the museum’s senior curator of natural history, European scientists had to admit the Māori whakataukī “were, in fact, correct”.
Since then, their bones have been found at more than 50 sites in the South Island.
See also: Pouākai – The World’s Largest Eagle