Early Australians ate the giant eggs of huge flightless birds, researchers confirm

Centuries ago, the demon ducks of Doom roamed the Earth.

True to their name, they were giant flightless birds – two meters high, weighing 200 kg – with massive beaks.

Now imagine sharing your neighborhood with them.

The first human inhabitants of Australia coexisted with the now extinct duck-like family of birds; Genyornis newtonithe last of the ‘Demon Ducks of Doom’.

Not everything was terrifying about them. They laid huge eggs – the size of cantaloupe melons that was more than 20 times the weight of an average chicken egg – which could be consumed as an important source of protein.

find the mother

Today, even though land birds have disappeared from the face of the Earth, 50,000-year-old eggshell fragments were discovered 40 years ago.

Researchers were unable to come to a consensus on the legitimate mother. Some have suggested Genyornis newtoniwhile others thought the shells came from Program birds – an extinct member of a group of species called megapodes. Program were “chicken-like birds”, with large feet and weighing only between five and seven kilograms.

“However, our analysis of egg protein sequences clearly shows that eggshells cannot originate from megapodes and that the Program bird,” explained Josefin Stiller, assistant professor in the department of biology at the University of Copenhagen and one of the researchers behind the new study, in a report.

The debate died down. In a new study published in the journal PNAS, researchers from the University of Copenhagen and their international colleagues have demonstrated that they may only be the latest in a unique lineage of duck-like megafauna. Doom’s Demon Ducks.

“They can only be Genyornis. As such, we have put an end to a very long and heated debate about the origin of these eggs,” said co-author and UCPH professor Matthew Collins, whose research area is evolutionary genetics. .

Egg fragments

DNA identified the Genyornis newtoni

This means that DNA analysis played a crucial role in assigning the eggs to the correct bird.

Researchers analyzed eggshell proteins found in sand dunes at two different locations in southern Australia – Walleroo and Woodpoint.

They then sprayed the proteins with bleach. After collecting the different small protein parts, the researchers put them together in the correct order and explored their structure using artificial intelligence.

The protein sequences provided them with a series of “codes” for genes that could be compared to the genes of over 350 species of living birds.

It was clear that the eggs were not being laid by a “chicken-like” bird.

“We used our data from B10K Project, which currently contains the genomes of all major bird lineages, to reconstruct which bird group the extinct bird probably belonged to. It became quite clear that the eggs were not laid by a megapode, and therefore did not belong to the Program“, explained Stiller.

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

femur bone
A large femur from Genyornis newtoni (left) and on your right a slightly smaller femur from an emu. Source: Trevor Worthy

Man played a key role in the extinction

Previous studies of the egg fragments revealed that the shells had been cooked and thrown into hearths. Charring of eggshell surfaces was evidence enough – indicating that eggs were eaten by early humans in Australia, around 65,000 years ago.

According to the hypothesis, this consumption could also have leads to extinction of the Genyornis bird 47,000 years ago.

“There is no evidence of Genyornis butchery in the archaeological archives. However, eggshell fragments with unique burn patterns consistent with human activity have been found in different locations across the continent,” said co-lead author Professor Gifford Miller of the University of Colorado, in a version.

“This implies that early humans didn’t necessarily hunt these huge birds, but regularly raided nests and stole their giant eggs for food,” he said. “Human overexploitation of eggs may well have contributed to Genyornis extinction.”

Solving the mystery of the origin of ancient Australian eggs could help scientists in the future understand human evolution.

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