These ground-dwelling, chicken-like megapodes sport a two-tone plumage of coal-black uppers and soft, peach-pink underparts, while the bare, multi-coloured skin of their heads is capped by a strange, bulbous protrusion called a casque – an adornment affectionately described as a football helmet or a walnut. The birds have been threatened with extinction for decades due to the harvesting of their huge, nutritious eggs, as well as the loss of nesting sites and habitat destruction due to encroachment, illegal logging, floods and forest fires.
What makes these birds really strange is their highly unusual reproductive behaviours, tapping the natural resources of the land, and relying on heat from thermal vents or sun-warmed sand to incubate their eggs. Monogamous pairs will work together to excavate a hole at a communal nesting area, sometimes surrounded by other maleos doing the same thing. As the birds feverishly excavate – with one of the pair digging while the other watches for predators, they also test the temperature of the sand or earth, and when they find a soil pocket of around 33?C, they stop. The female then lays a single, massive egg, which she carefully places upright in the hole before covering with sand and other debris for camouflage. The egg will then develop in the ground and the parents will have nothing else to do with that particular chick. Over the next two or three months, the pair will return to the same nest site and repeat the reproductive process up to a dozen times: digging, laying another egg, covering and walking away.
MALEO FUN FACTS:
The maleo egg, five times larger than a chicken egg and containing twice as much yolk, is the largest laid by any megapode. It is easy to see why these eggs are coveted by local people.
When a maleo chick hatches after 60-90 days of incubation, it must burrow to the surface, sometimes through a metre of soil or sand; a harrowing task that can take up to two days. It then instinctively makes a break for the protective cover of the forest; running and even flying to escape from local predators, which vary from endemic species such as monitor lizards and snakes to those brought in by man such as cats and pigs.
The maleo chick is almost the size of a full grown chicken when it emerges from the sand. It is one of the most physically-mature vertebrate newborns on the planet.
The maleo’s unique life cycle – in particular its utter reliance on conspicuous and exposed communal nest sites – has made the species vulnerable to human threats. Sulawesi villagers have a long history of harvesting, then selling, the protein-laden eggs. In addition to human nest site poachers, there is the problem of vanishing habitat as the distance between coastal nest sites and the forests where the birds live continues to widen.
Efforts are being made to ensure the survival of the species. Maleo protection programmes, including the Alliance for Tompotika Conservation (ALTO), have been developed in partnership with local interest groups, underpinned by the idea that villagers living near nest sites have the most to gain by maleo conservation.
Taima Village, North Tompotika, in the Banggai Regency of Central Sulawesi, is a nesting site of the maleo bird. On Seatrek’s ‘Sulawesi Snorkelling & Culture’ Cruise, guests will have the opportunity to visit a project by the Alliance for Tompotika Conservation (ALTO) and hopefully see the almost-extinct, huge maleo birds digging in the sand to lay their eggs.
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