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Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos)

Taxonomy and Nomenclature

(Johnsgard 1990; Kochert et al 2002; Lerner & Mindell 2005; Ericson et al. 2006; Hackett et al. 2008; Harshman 2008; Gaff & Boles 2010)

Taxonomic History

  • Common Name: Named for pale yellowish brown of head and neck
  • Scientific Name: Aquila from the Latin for "eagle"; chrysaetos from the Greek for "golden eagle"
  • For recent discussion of taxonomy of booted eagles (Aqualinae), see Lerner & Mindell (2005)
  • Subspecies discussed in Kochert et al. (2002)
  • New understandings of bird DNA and evolution have resulted in many proposed changes in bird taxonomy, including that for eagles:
    • A recent DNA study: two orders previously used for eagles (Ciconiiformes and Falconiformes) both contain birds that are descended from more than one common ancestor (Hackett et al. 2008)
    • Eagles and hawks should be classified in their own order - Acccipitriformes - along with other birds; only falcons would remain in the order Falconiformes. (Harshman 2008; Lerner & Mindell 2005)
  • The genus Aquila is probably composed of descendants of more than one common ancestor (it's not monophyletic); it should be revised. (Lerner & Mindell 2005)
  • Other species of Aquila that share close evolutionary relationship to golden eagles include: (Johnsgard 1990) (Lerner & Mindell)
    • A. verreauxi (Verreaux's eagle of Africa
    • A. audax (wedge-tailed eagle of Africa)
    • A. gurneyi (Gurney's eagle of New Guinea)

Evolutionary History

(Johnsgard 1990; Kochert et al 2002; Lerner & Mindell 2005; Ericson et al. 2006; Hackett et al. 2008; Harshman 2008; Gaff & Boles 2010)

  • Predatory hawks, falcons, and owls had probably diverged from other birds in the Cretaceous (Dingus and Rowe 1998)
  • Aquila-like birds recognized from rocks 50-30 million years old in Europe. (del Hoyo et al. 1994)
  • A new eagle species of Aquila has been identified from the Northern Territory, Australia (Gaff & Boles 2010)
    • This bird lived around 12 million years ago (mid-Miocene)
    • This is possibly the oldest record for this genus
  • Other fossil species of Aquila are known from rocks around 2 million years old (Late Pliocene) of southern U.S. (Emslie & Czaplewski 1999)
  • Golden eagles have been identified at Rancho La Brea, California in 40,000-20,000 year-old Pleistocene asphalt seeps. (Stock 1992)
  • Golden eagles fossils are known from Pleistocene sites in Corsica and Sardinia (Gaff & Boles 2010)

Cultural History

(Johnsgard 1990; Kochert et al 2002; Lerner & Mindell 2005; Ericson et al. 2006; Hackett et al. 2008; Harshman 2008; Gaff & Boles 2010)

  • In 5th century BC, Pliny the Elder, the Roman natural historian, claimed the death of poet Aeschylus was caused by an eagle. (Watson 1997)
    • Supposedly, the eagle mistook Pliny's bald head for a rock
    • As eagle's often do, the raptor dropped a tortoise on Pliny to break apart the shell
    • This unfortunate death had been foretold by a seer who claimed a house would fall on Aeschylus' head (and a tortoise's shell is its "house")
  • Eagles figured in Egyptian hieroglyphic writing (Sagan 1985)
    • Researchers studying the Rosetta stone realized the hieroglyph of an eagle translated as the letter "a" in Greek
  • Ancient Greeks and Romans both viewed the golden eagle as a messenger of the gods.
  • Roman soldiers carried eagle emblems; campsites near eagle nests carried great significance (Watson 1997)
  • An ancient practice involves humans hunting with captive raptors, including golden eagles. (Palmer 1988) (Delaney 2011)
    • Traditionally in Mongolia, an eagle rides on a wooden perch with a Kazakh hunter on horseback
    • This is an tradition traced to nomadic tribes eventually conquered by Genghis Khan
  • Formerly in Britain, only kings hunted with eagles.
  • Many native American tribes in U.S. had rituals involving eagles and the use of eagle feathers.
    • Tail feathers of at least 5 juvenile golden eagles used in making one war bonnet for Plains tribes. (Watson 1997)
    • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages a national eagle repository for eagles found dead (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service 2011)
      • Native Americans can apply for a permit and receive feathers or an entire eagle body.
  • The golden eagle is the national bird of Mexico, Albania, Germany, Austria and Kazakhstan.


Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Aves — birds

Order: Accipitriformes — raptors

Family: Accipitridae — eagles, hawks, kites

Genus: Aquila (Brisson, 1760) — golden eagles

Species: Aquila chrysaetos (Linnaeus, 1758) — Golden Eagle

Subspecies: A. c. canadensis (Linneaus, 1758) — only subspecies in North America

Subspecies: A. c. chrysaetos (Linneaus, 1758) — Europe and Asia

Subspecies: A. c. kamtschatica (Severtzov, 1888) — northeast Asia (a possible subspecies)

Subspecies: A. c. homeyeri (Severtzov, 1888) — Iberian Peninsula, North Africa, islands in Mediterranean, certain areas of the Middle East

Subspecies: A. c. daphanea (Severtzov, 1888) — Iran to central China

Subspecies: A. c. japonica (Severtzov, 1888) — Korea and Japan

Source: ITIS (2018)

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