Fossils of extinct dwarf emu destroyed by golf course
Within eight years of discovery the dwarf emu of King Island was extinct. Now 200 years later, even the fossils of these birds are at risk by the development of a golf course. Thankfully, some local residents have stepped in to help save them.
When the Europeans first explored the islands off the southern coast of Australia, they found that many had their own species of emu living there. Some of these - including those on Kangaroo and King Island - were much smaller than those living on the mainland, reaching just a
The dwarf emus on King Island were first formally documented by Europeans in
'During that time Baudin rounded up a number of live individuals, including chicks, to take them home to France,' says Julian.
Nearly all of them perished on the boat as Baudin made his way back to Europe, although the crew did keep the skeletons and stuffed some of the babies. Only two of them - a male and female from King Island - made it back alive to Paris in 1806.
Keeping the birds alive during the voyage was no easy feat. 'During the
By the time that these two emus made it to Paris, their native King Island was already being changed beyond recognition.
The last of their kind
Before Europeans arrived, the island supported dense eucalyptus forest in the interior, which was surrounded by
Unfortunately for the emus, this was the same part of the island that the early European settlers decided to
Julian says, 'When Baudin arrived on King Island there were 13 people already there. But as there were huge colonies of elephant seals, more and more settlers came and started burning off the forest. A report from 1806 says that all that could be seen along the coast were fires.'
Within just four years of this report, it is thought that the entire habitat for the emu was gone. But that was not the only threat.
This destruction of their native habitat was combined with the sealer's insatiable taste for the birds. When Boudin arrived on King Island, he recorded that the head of the sealers claimed to have personally eaten an astonishing 300 emus in the six months he had been there.
'By about 1810 all the emus on King Island were extinct, and the two that made it to Paris
A second extinction
For almost a century, not much attention was paid to dwarf emus that were once scattered across the handful of Australian islands. Then at the beginning of the twentieth century, a few researchers excavated the sandy dunes of King Island and revealed a wealth of
It was this that spurred Julian to go there in 2014 to track down where the fossils were uncovered and record them in situ. Along with the help of a local natural historian, Christian Robertson, who has long been collecting the fossils himself, they managed to find the exact bone bed uncovered in earlier expeditions, revealing even more emu bones and egg shell fragments.
But unfortunately, things were not to last. When they were back the following year, there were surprised to find that a golf course had been built over the entire area.
Julian explains, 'We hadn't surveyed all of the
'When we went back the follow year a golf course had been built on it. They'd completely destroyed the whole area.'
When they tried to enter the golf course to see what might be left of the fossils, Julian and his colleagues were denied access.
This was a massive disappointment, and the scientists were despondent. They managed to find another site with a few more fossils, but the first site was the best, and Julian says they were 'quite gutted about it.'
But this story has a happy ending. After causing a little stir on the island, Julian received an email from a landowner on King Island adjacent to the golf course inviting him to come and dig there instead.
'They were very annoyed about the golf course going ahead in the first place, and were deeply concerned that the site had been destroyed,' says Julian. 'Since then a number of landowners have expressed interest in opening up their land.
'It is a wonderful outcome. I've been doing this kind of work all around the world for 25 years and this has never happened before. For the first
Julian hopes to uncover more about the lives and habitats of dwarf emus in years to come.