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By Michael Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (July 27, 1999 – Agence France-Presse)---Scientists have made the radical discovery that Fiji was once a land of giants which included a huge 15 kilogram (33 pound) flightless chicken-like bird, a meter (yard) high flightless pigeon, a big frog and enormous tortoises, a paleontologist said Tuesday.

They all disappeared when the first people arrived -- and ate them.

The discoveries, along with a large crocodile-like land animal, by the Fiji Museum and the Australian National University Central Pacific Colonization project are causing excitement among experts because nothing quite like it has been found anywhere else.

"In my view this is probably the most exciting fauna left to be uncovered in the world. Most of the remote bigger other islands have already been looked at," the project paleontologist Trevor Worthy of New Zealand told AFP in an interview.

"There is no other equivalent place and the finding of all these big things is sort of a melding of the unique tracts of many of the other islands."

The work is showing that the first Fijians who arrived around 3,000 years probably wiped out the giants which had no mammalian predators to that point.

Although food middens of the first Fijians are, as yet, sparse Worthy said the bones of giant megapods had been found in an archaeological site in an island off Suva.

"That is unequivocal evidence that they inter-acted. They survived until people came along."

The giant fauna survived millions of years on islands which had a benign climate, even at the end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago.

"I think people did the whole lot. While the connecting evidence is yet thin, I think it almost certain that all these species were made extinct by hunting by people 3,000 – 2,500 years ago."

The giants would have been very susceptible to hunting.

"It is almost certain that when the first Fijians stepped ashore they were greeted by meter high pigeons and meter high chickens and meter and a half long iguanas and within 50 years they would have all gone."

They probably would have been killed off quickly valley by valley.

With no mammalian predator, the fauna would have been long living and slow at reproduction.

"People impact, hunting and predatation will eliminate these things."

The rats which accompanied people would have taken care of the 25-centimeter (10-inch) long frogs.

Worthy said the project had the leg bones and part of the vertebrae of the still to be named megapod or chicken-like bird, which would have built mounds on the ground and laid its eggs there.

"The one on Fiji was probably approaching a meter high. We are talking about something about 15 kilos (33 pounds)," he said.

"It had a reasonably big head and not a beak like a chicken, which was quite unique. It had a very high or deep bill, centimeters deep. It was adapted to eat very large fruit."

Nothing like it exists today.

Bones of the various giant fauna have also been found in caves near Volivoli outside Sigatoka. Nearby sand dunes have already caused international attention for the earliest presence of people in Fiji. Erosion is, however, destroying the human evidence.

Worthy said his finds were made in limestone caves. In one site the evidence suggested that the deposit was formed by a crocodile like animal, up to four meters (yards) long consuming its prey there, which included giant birds.

Between Suva and Nausori they have also located a jawbone of one of the crocodilian type animals.

The project is yet to fully publish its data but some of it was outlined earlier this month at the Pacific Science Congress in Sydney.

Michael Field Agence France-Presse New Zealand/South Pacific E-mail:" target="_blank"> Phone: (64 21) 688438 Fax: (64 21) 694035 Website:" target="_blank">

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