An Alfred Hitchcock Moment

The office of a colleague, paleontologist Tab Rasmussen at Washington University in St. Louis, houses an awesome, frightening treasure. It's the talon of an extinct raptor that once lived in Madagascar. The raptor has no common name. Like many fossil species, it is known only by its scientific name, Stephanoaetus mahery.

Recently, we had the opportunity to examine this talon. It came from a large eagle that became extinct 1,500—2,000 years ago. The talon was from the front of the raptor foot. Measuring over 1.5 inches, it is robust and very impressive. Those talons could have done major damage to any prey species. The long hind talons of the fossil eagle are equal in size and massiveness (and the tarsometatarsus is actually larger) than modern specimens of crowned hawk-eagles. Stephanoaetus is also the genus in which the modern crowned hawk-eagle of today resides. The fossil and today's crowned hawk-eagle are relatives—the crowned hawk-eagle being the only surviving member of the genus. "Exceptionally robust" in size and proportions—along with "exceptionally prominent" muscle attachment surfaces—were mentioned in the first published description of the extinct eagle by Steve Goodman, an ornithologist at Chicago's Field

Museum. He credits the long hind talon of the crowned hawk-eagle with its ability to subdue very large prey. Since the hind talons of S. mahery and its modern cousin are similar in massive length and girth, he assumes that S. mahery would have been a formidable predator of lemurs, just as the crowned hawk-eagle is the premier threat to African forest monkeys today.35 We started putting ourselves in the place of prey to that fossil eagle. We know it was as large or larger than the extant crowned hawk-eagles of Africa, which have a wingspan of 6 feet. Primatologists Lysa Leland and Tom Struhsaker wrote that seeing crowned hawk-eagles swooping low in the forest—when you are standing under them in the shadows of their outstretched wings—is like being back in the age of the pterodactyls.36

One of us (RWS) had the experience of being the target of a pair of hawks that decided to dive at an offending human. I recalled that while following one of my groups of brown lemurs under the trees in a deciduous forest in southwestern Madagascar, I disturbed a pair of small hawks, probably Henst's goshawks. They must have just built a nest or hatched a brood of nestlings, because I had been in this portion of the lemurs' range many times before without incident. Both of the birds began diving at me and coming so close that I could feel the wind as they flew past. They continued to do this for a few weeks, becoming ever more intimidating. I would try to stay clear of the area, but when I had to follow the lemurs into their range, I'd take a stick to wave at the hawks in an attempt to discourage their rambunctious attempts to take my head off. Once one of them actually glanced off my forehead as it flew by. The fossil S. mahery would have been more than three times larger than the hawks that dived at my head. I wouldn't have wanted that large extinct eagle to be the bird diving at me in a Madagascar forest!

This is virtually what did happen to the late Leslie Brown, who was the world's authority on the crowned hawk-eagle. Brown included an impressive photograph in one of his books that speaks louder than any words about the pain elicited by an attack from a large eagle. Three half-inch-wide ropey scars spread about 8 inches apart on his back are testimony to the power of crowned hawk-eagle talons. A female eagle had acted aggressively toward him over a period of several years when he was monitoring her nests. Finally, one nesting season she had enough of this human intruder and launched a full attack. The eagle flew directly at him from 300 yards away at high speed and delivered a violent downward impact with one open foot. He declared it felt like a crushing blow from a heavy stick; if he had not been wearing a shirt, which was mostly what her talons grasped, he would have sustained even more serious damage. (Reminiscent of the Zambian schoolboy whose khaki uniform saved him!) Needless to say, Brown opted for discretion over valor and kept away from her nest after the incident.37

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