Natural history illustration of the King Island emu

An illustration of the King Island dwarf emu from 1893 based on the only surviving skin © Muséum national d'histoire naturelle (France) licensed via Wikimedia commons

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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 metre in height.

Dr Julian Hume, an avian palaeontologist at the Museum, has been surveying King Island on the hunt for the remains of these now-extinct diminutive birds, but came up against the development of a golf course that destroyed the main bone bed known to have preserved dwarf emu bones.   

Island dwarfism

The dwarf emus on King Island were first formally documented by Europeans in 1802, when a French expedition led by explorer and cartographer Nicolas Baudin made landfall. At the time, the only people living on the island were a small community of sealers who had settled there to take advantage of the massive elephant seal colony hauled out on the beaches.

'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 journey the emus refused to eat, so the crew force-fed them rum and ship's biscuits to keep them going,' explains Julian. 'Every time they made landfall, the crew took the birds ashore to give them a bit of a reprieve.'

By the time that these two emus made it to Paris, their native King Island was already being changed beyond recognition.

Painting showing the elphant seal colony and dawrf emu that used to live on King Island

Both the huge colony of elephant seals and endemic dwarf emus of King Island were killed off after the arrival of Europeans © Julian Hume

The last of their kind

Before Europeans arrived, the island supported dense eucalyptus forest in the interior, which was surrounded by scrub land that led down onto the long sandy beaches. By mapping where the dwarf emu fossils have been found, Julian and his colleagues have deduced that the emus were largely coastal birds, not straying particularly far inland. 

Unfortunately for the emus, this was the same part of the island that the early European settlers decided to colonise.  

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 were the last of their kind,' says Julian. 'They lived until 1822, when they both died within a few months of each other.'

The only surviving skin of a King Island emu

The only surviving skin of a King Island dwarf emu is from the one female that made it back to Paris in 1806 © Julian Hume

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 fossilised emu bones.

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 area because we had limited time, but we thought there were potentially other fossil beds at the same site.

'When we went back the follow year a golf course had been built on it. They'd completely destroyed the whole area.' 

Digging in the sand dunes to find the emu bones

The fossils are found in sand dunes, which were flattened and covered with grass by the golf course © Julian Hume

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 time something positive has happened.' 

Julian hopes to uncover more about the lives and habitats of dwarf emus in years to come.