Genyornis Egg

Controversial prehistoric egg identified as last of ‘demon ducks of fate’

Genyornis Egg

The only nearly completely intact Genyornis eggshell ever discovered. It was located by N. Spooner and collected by Gifford H. Miller, South Australia. The presence of four puncture wounds on the egg indicates that it was preceded by a scavenger marsupial. Credit: Gifford H. Miller

Researchers identify ancient birds behind giant prehistoric eggs

A years-long scientific controversy in Australia over which animal is the true mother of the gigantic primordial eggs has been settled. In a recent study, scientists from the University of Copenhagen and their global counterparts showed that the eggs could only be the last of a rare lineage of megafauna known as the “Demon Ducks of Doom”.

Consider living next to a 200 kg, two meter tall bird with a huge beak. This was the situation of the first people who settled in Australia around 65,000 years ago.

Genyornis newtonithe last members of the “Demon Ducks of Doom”, coexisted there with our ancestors as one species of a now extinct family of duck-like birds.

Lights of Genyornis

Illustration of Genyornis newtoni hunted by a giant lizard in Australia around 50,000 years ago. Credit: Artwork provided by artist Peter Trusler.

According to a recent study by experts from the University of Copenhagen and an international team of colleagues, the flightless bird lays eggs the size of cantaloupe melons, likely much to the delight of ancient humans who have them very much. probably collected and consumed as an essential protein source. The research has just been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Ever since experts first found the 50,000-year-old eggshell pieces 40 years ago, the huge eggs have been the subject of debate. Until recently, it was unclear whether the eggs truly belonged to the family of “demon ducks”, also known as dromornithids.

Since 1981, the identity of the bird that lays the eggs has been a source of controversy for scientists around the world. While some suggested Genyornis newtoniothers thought the shells came from pass birds, an extinct member of the megapode species group. pass were “chicken-like birds” that weighed only five to seven kilograms and had huge legs.

Eggshells are too few, according to proponents of the pass bird, for a bird the size of Genyornis newtoni to put them.

“However, our analysis of egg protein sequences clearly shows that eggshells cannot originate from megapodes and that the pass bird,” says Josefin Stiller, an assistant professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Copenhagen and one of the researchers behind the new study.

“They can only be Genyornis. As such, we have ended a very long and heated debate about the origin of these eggs,” adds co-author and professor at the University of Copenhagen, Matthew Collins, whose research area is genetics. scalable.

An egg and Genyornis Newton

To the right is an emu egg, and to the left is the egg, which researchers believe is from Doom’s duck demon, Genyornis newtoni. This last egg weighs about 1.5 kg, more than 20 times the weight of an average chicken egg. Credit: Trevor Worthy

Protein analysis and a genetic database identified the mother

In the sand dunes of the towns of Wallaroo and Woodpoint in southern Australia, scientists examined the proteins in eggshells.

The proteins were broken down into small pieces by bleach before the researchers put the pieces together in the correct order and used artificial intelligence to study their structure. The protein sequences gave them a collection of gene “codes” that they could compare to the genes of more than 350 species of extant bird species.

Geniornis Newtoni

A large femur Genyornis newtoni (left) and right a somewhat smaller femur of an emu. Credit: Trevor Worthy

“We used our data from the B10K project, which currently contains the genomes of all major bird lineages, to reconstruct which group of birds the extinct bird likely belonged to. It became quite clear that the eggs were not laid by a megapode, and therefore did not belong to the pass», explains Josefin Stiller.

Thus, researchers have solved the mystery of the origin of ancient Australian eggs and given us new insights into evolution.

“We are delighted to have conducted an interdisciplinary study in which we used protein sequence analysis to shed light on animal evolution,” concludes Matthew Collins.

Eggs were eaten by early humans in Australia

Previous research on egg shards indicates that the shells were cooked and then thrown into hearths. Charring of eggshell surfaces is confirmation of this, proving that the first Australians devoured eggs around 65,000 years ago.

Genyornis Eggshell Fragments

Eggshell fragments from an old nest in South Australia. The mass of eggshell collected in one square meter is equivalent to about 12 whole eggs. Credit: Gifford H. Miller

Australia’s earliest inhabitants likely harvested eggs from nests, which it is hypothesized may have led to the extinction of the Genyornis bird 47,000 years ago.

For more on this research, see Early Australians Ate Giant Eggs of Huge Flightless Birds.

Reference: “Ancient Proteins Resolve Genyornis Eggshell Identity Controversy” by Beatrice Demarchi, Josefin Stiller, Alicia Grealy, Meaghan Mackie, Yuan Deng, Tom Gilbert, Julia Clarke, Lucas J. Legendre, Rosa Boano, Thomas Sicheritz-Pontén, John Magee, Guojie Zhang, Michael Bunce, Matthew James Collins and Gifford Miller, May 24, 2022, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2109326119

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