King Island emu bones – the Empress and extinction

No. 6

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Now extinct, the King Island emu (Dromaius ater) was one of three emu species to inhabit Australia at the time of European colonisation. With an estimated height of less than 1.5 metres, and weighing in at about 23 kilograms, the King Island emu was smaller than the Australian mainland emu – which stands at 1.5–2 metres high and weighs between 35–50 kilograms. The date of the King Island emu's extinction is not clear, but the reason for its extinction is: it was due to predation by sealers who had settled on the island – even before Van Diemen's Land was colonised – to exploit elephant seals for their oil and pelts.

When French captain, Nicholas Baudin, visited King Island in 1803 the emus were still plentiful with sealers continuing to use them for food. Two live birds were taken aboard Baudin's ship and then to Paris, where they lived for some years in the garden of Empress Josephine, at Malmaison. When the emus died, their bodies were transferred to the Paris Natural History Museum, where they remain. The only complete skeleton of this species is in Florence.

These emu bones were collected on King Island in 1906 by TMAG's first director, Alexander Morton, and geologist R. M. Johnston. The two men had travelled to the island after hearing reports that a large deposit of animal bones had been discovered in the sand dunes at Surprise Bay. When they arrived at the site, they found the deposit contained the bones of several mammal species and a variety of birds – as well as the extinct emu.

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