Big-footed Little Dinosaur on Borneo?


Here’s a story of a really eccentric but genius resident of Borneo. It is so eccentric it chooses to live not really on Borneo, but just off – it lives on the small islands off Borneo’s coast. And it is a brilliant chemist! Until today, no one has been able to explain, or understand, who this creature really is, how it does what it does, or why.

Introducing the Megapode. In Greek, Mega means big, and Poda means feet. In proportion to its body, the Megapode has the largest feet of any animal on Borneo, and just to complete a picture of a stupid chicken, it has a small head and looks like a small village chicken! But don’t be deceived by this stupid looking chicken… it does something no other bird (or human) can do, it understands and uses chemistry to measure and regulate temperature.

Megapodes are mound nesters. They build huge nests made by shovelling sand (with their oversized feet) into a huge mound. Their nest mounds vary in size with different species (there are over 20 species), some reaching 5m in diameter and 1m deep. These incubator nests (Megapodes are also called incubator birds) are the largest nests in the bird kingdom.

Now, we all know birds build nests, lay their eggs in these nests and incubate their eggs by sitting on them. They control the temperature of the eggs until they hatch. Too cold, or too hot, and the eggs won’t hatch. All birds do this, except the Megapode.

Megapodes of Borneo build their large mound nests of leaves and sand on or close to beaches. They lay eggs inside a chamber of dead leaves, covered with twigs, dead branches and sand. The eggs are incubated by the heat generated by the decaying vegetation, and the male regularly checks the temperature by “opening” the lid, and closing it again.

The nests are taken care of by the male, who never wanders far from the nest. No one can understand how the males tell if the temperature inside the nest mound is increasing or decreasing. When the daytime temperature gets too hot, the male opens the mound to let the air circulate, thus reducing the temperature. When it starts to cool down, the mound is closed again.

This is highly intelligent behaviour, but from a stupid looking chicken-like bird with a small head. This behaviour is more like a reptile than a bird, wouldn’t you agree? Snakes, lizards and turtles do this, but not birds! And that is not all.

Megapode chicks are hatched fully formed, and in some species, the chick can fly immediately upon hatching. The hatchlings are fully independent right from the start. They climb out of their nests and off they go. The parents do not look after them, they do not feed them. In fact, the parents never even see their young! Again, this is a reptilian trait, like sea turtles and crocodiles.

The question scientists are still pondering is whether this Megapode is really a bird. Could this actually be a reptile? It is commonly accepted that the dinosaurs were reptiles. 60 million years ago, there were no real birds yet, just these dinosaurs, many walking around on two legs, laying eggs and some flying around in the skies. Hmmm… just like birds?

Come to think about it, the dinosaurs seem to be more like birds than our reptiles today… our favourite dinosaur, the Velociraptor, had two huge feet, two tiny front feet (think chicken wings!) a small head, and laid eggs in a nest on the ground. It looked more like a Megapode than a lizard!

Is this Megapode now sounding more like a dinosaur than a bird now? This is the mystery. Perhaps this little big-footed stupid chicken looking bird is a little more than we initially thought it was? Surely in time, our ever clever scientists will solve this mystery, and tell us for sure whether this is just a weird, but extremely smart little bird, or is this a dinosaur that has cloaked itself in a robe of feathers, defied evolution as we think it is, and continues to live amongst us… oh well, not amongst us, but just a little away from all of us… on small islands off Borneo.

This is yet another intriguing tale of yet another animal on Borneo that is special in its own way. Just another of the myriad of reasons why Borneo is a really special place. Yet another reason for the people who call Borneo home to be fascinated, to be appreciative, and to be a little more careful in the way we live our lives, so that other special creatures can also continue to call Borneo home as well.