The eagles are coming! The eagles are com-AAARGGHH!

3 minute read

I wasn't going to link this, since there's not a research paper yet. But (a) I had some readers e-mail me about it, and (b) it made Slashdot. There aren't that many stories that get so much excitement.

I guess it's been a slow month!

In any event, here is the story from the AP:

Five months ago, researchers from Ohio State University submitted what Berger called the most comprehensive study to date of eagle damage on bones. Berger was among those asked to review the paper for the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.
The Ohio State paper identified key features that distinguished damage caused by eagles from that of other predators. They include the flaps of depressed bone on top of the skull caused by the birds' talon and keyhole-shaped cuts on the side made by their beaks, noted by Berger and Clarke in their 1995 paper.
But they also identified features previously never described: puncture marks and ragged incisions in the base of the eye sockets, made when eagles rip out the eyes of dead monkeys with their talons and beaks to get at the brains. Large predators can't reach inside the tiny sockets and instead crack open the skulls, Berger said.
The study prompted Berger to re-examine the Taung skull.
"I picked up this little face, and I almost dropped it," he said Thursday. There was a tiny hole and jagged tears at the base of the eye sockets that he and over two dozen other researchers had never noticed.

It could certainly be true -- something had to kill it, after all.

The idea that a hominid toddler could be picked up and carried by an eagle seems a bit far-fetched. But it wouldn't have had to be carried Frodo-style, I suppose; it could have been struck and eaten on the spot. Or maybe just the head got carried off.

I wonder whether instead of an eagle being the primary predator, we are looking at the effects of carrion-eaters. Possibly they damaged the bones and then they were carried by water (or other predators) into the cave. Or possibly the carrion birds took the head to a secondary location where it could drop in. This could mean eagles, but it could also mean vultures or potentially other birds.

Of course, there's always the possibility that some graduate student jabbed the marks there with the talons of their Microscribe. That would also explain why nobody else had noticed...

Berger checked a 1925 cast of the skull to confirm the damage was always there.

Well, I guess that puts the end to the marauding student theory.

UPDATE (1/14/06): Some commenters are saying that the "swoop in and kill" hypothesis is the obvious answer. In other words, the eagles didn't have to carry the bones anywhere, they just killed and ate the hominid on the spot. One e-mailer pointed out that this accords with eagle behavior; they usually don't carry prey away from a kill site unless they are nesting.

There is a problem with this, though: It doesn't explain the accumulation of eagle-eaten bones in one place, which is where the eagle predation hypothesis originally came from.

It seems to me that if eagles were involved at all, it makes more sense to abandon the idea that Taung was underneath some kind of eagle lair, and just go with the idea that the bones happened together by other taphonomic processes. So, I'm saying the "swoop in and kill" is the most likely part of this scenario, but you can't have it both ways.

In any event, it seems to me that this is a lot of wind-puffing without seeing the paper first.

UPDATE (1/15/06): K. Kris Hirst at posted a while ago about a limerick contest on the Taung eagle hypothesis from the Annals of Improbable Research.

Oh, brother.

If you are interested, please follow the link. The chance of me allowing a limerick here is less than zero. Way less. Like the square root of less than zero. That is to say, imaginary.

This might strike me as humorous too, except for that sinking feeling that I am about to see a National Geographic documentary about this....