Vanuatu megapode (Megapodius layardi)

GenusMegapodius (1)
SizeLength: 32 cm (2)
Male weight: 459 g (3)
Female weight: 405 g (3)

The Vanuatu megapode is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1).

Most famed for the remarkable and unusual way in which it incubates its eggs, the Vanuata megapode (Megapodius layardi) is a relatively small, black galliform with a striking red face and yellow legs (2). Chicks of this species initially have plain brown plumage, which becomes darker with age, as the bright red facial skin and yellow colouring of the legs also develops (4). The word megapode means ‘giant foot’, and refers to the strong, well-developed feet and legs of this terrestrial bird (5).

The Vanuatu megapode is endemic to Vanuatu (2), an archipelago of over 80 islands in the south-west Pacific. It is found only in the lowland regions of the larger north and central islands (6). The Loru Rainforest Protected Area on the island of Espiritu Santo and Ambrym Island hold the most studied populations of the Vanuata megapode (7) (8).

The Vanuatu megapode occurs in lowland forest, but has also been recorded at elevations of up to 800 metres on Ambrym Island (8), and is able to persist in degraded forest and gardens (2). It nests in decomposing vegetation, on beaches, and also in volcanically heated areas (3) (9) (10).

The megapodes are the only birds that do not use their own body heat to incubate their eggs, but instead utilise microbial, geothermal, or solar heat (10). The Vanuatu megapodelays its eggs in burrows between decaying roots of trees, where the process of decay produces heat, in burrows in volcanically heated soils, or in burrows on sun-exposed beaches (9). Like many other burrow-nesting megapodes, the Vanuata megapode nests in colonies, thought to be the consequence of a scarcity of these very specific nesting sites (3). It is likely that more than one female uses each burrow within a nesting site, as at any one time a burrow can contain several tens of eggs at various stages of development (8).

The Vanuatu megapode feeds on invertebrates, which it forages for in the leaf litter on forest floors (6) (9).

A limited amount of scientific research, plus anecdotal evidence collected by local residents, has recorded a decrease in numbers of this species (9) (11). Up to thousands of eggs and chicks of the Vanuatu megapode are collected each year by villagers, for consumption and for sale in local markets (3) (8). If numbers of the breeding population continue to decline, it is likely that this harvesting will threaten the survival of the species (3) (8). The Vanuatu megapode is also threatened by habitat loss and degradation, as forests are cleared for agriculture, cattle ranching and logging (4). The occurrence of fires and cyclones can also have devastating effects on the small populations that inhabit forested areas (6) (9) (11).

Egg collection on the island of Ambrym is now restricted, with a four-month annual taboo on egg collection in the northern and western parts of the island, and a five-year ban on egg collection in the southeast  (2) (8), and workshops and community theatre continue to raise awareness of this threatened bird (2). Varying monitoring methods have also been tested and population data gathered in the hope that they will provide the basis for long-term monitoring of the species (8). On Espiritu Santo, hunting of the Vanuatu megapode is prohibited from July to March, and it occurs in the Vatthe (Big Bay) Conservation Area and Loru Rainforest Protected Area (2).  

Proposed additional conservation measures for this species include conducting surveys on the islands from which there is a lack of up-to-date information, in order to gain a complete and accurate estimate of the bird’s population size (2), and ensuring that restricted egg collections remain enforced. Where restrictions are not yet in place, management plans should be created to ensure harvesting is sustainable (2).

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Red List (September, 2010)
  2. BirdLife International (September, 2010)
  3. Dekker, R., Fuller, R.A. and Baker, J.C. (2002) Megapodes: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan 2000 – 2004. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland.
  4. BirdLife International (2000) Threatened Birds of the World. Lynx Edicions, Madrid, Spain
  5. Hildyard, A. (2001) Endangered Wildlife and Plants of the World. Marshall Cavendish Corporation, Tarrytown, New York.
  6. Bregulla, H.L. (1992) Birds of Vanuatu. Anthony Nelson, Oswestry.
  7. Bowen, J. (1997) The status of the avifauna of Loru Protected Area, Santo, Vanuatu. Bird Conservation International, 7: 331-334.
  8. O’Brien, M., Beaumont, D.J., Peacock, M.A., Hills, R. and Edwin, H.(2003) The Vanuatu Megapode Megapodius layardi, Monitoring and Conservation. RSPB, Sandy, UK.
  9. Bowen, J. (1996) Notes on the Vanuatu megapode Megapodius layardi on Ambrym, Vanuatu. Bird Conservation International, 6: 401-408.
  10. Jones, D.N., Dekker, R.W.R.J. and Roselaar, C.S. (1995) The Megapodes. Oxford University Press,Oxford.
  11. Foster, T. (1999) Update on the Vanuatu megapode Megapodius layardi on Ambrym, Vanuatu. Bird Conservation International, 9: 63-71.