The controversial prehistoric egg has been identified as the last of the ‘Demon Ducks of Doom’

Genyornis Egg
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Genyornis Egg

The only almost completely intact Genyornis eggshell ever discovered. Posted 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 scavenging marsupial. Credit: Gifford H. Miller

Researchers identify ancient birds behind giant prehistoric eggs

In Australia, there has been an ongoing scientific debate for years about which animal was the real mother of the giant primitive eggs. Scientists in a recent study University of Copenhagen and their global counterparts have shown that the eggs may be the last in a line of rare megafauna known as the “Demon Ducks of Doom.”

Imagine living next to a bird that weighs 200 kg and has a huge beak that is two meters tall. This was the case for the first humans to settle in Australia around 65,000 years ago.

geniornis newtoniThe last members of the “demonic ducks of doom” lived there with our ancestors as a species of an extinct family of duck-like birds.

Genyornis Illustration

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

The flightless bird lays eggs the size of cantaloupes, most likely for the pleasure of ancient humans who collected and consumed them as a major source of protein, according to a recent study by experts at the University of Copenhagen and an international team of colleagues. Newly published in a research journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Giant eggs have been the subject of debate since experts first found 50,000-year-old eggshell fragments 40 years ago. It wasn’t known until recently whether the eggs actually belonged to the family of “demon-ducks” known as dromornithids.

Since 1981, the identity of the egg-laying bird has been a source of controversy for scientists around the world. While some suggest geniornis newtoniothers thought the shells originated search birds, an extinct member of the megapod species group. search they were “chicken-like birds” that weighed only five to seven kilograms and had large feet.

According to its supporters, there are very few eggshells search bird, size for a bird geniornis newtoni put them.

“However, our analyzes of protein sequences from eggs clearly show that eggshells cannot be derived from megapods and eggs. search bird,” explains Josefin Stiller, associate professor at the Department of Biology at the University of Copenhagen and one of the researchers behind the new study.

“They can only be from Genyorni. So we put an end to a very long and heated debate about the origin of these eggs,” adds co-author and Professor Matthew Collins of the University of Copenhagen, whose research field is evolutionary genetics.

Emu Egg and Genyornis Newtoni

On the right is an emu-egg, and on the left is an egg that researchers believe originated from his Demon Duck of Doom. geniornis newtoni. The last egg weighs about 1.5 kilograms, which is 20 times the weight of an average chicken egg. Credit: Trevor Worthy

Protein analysis and a gene database identified the mother

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

The pieces were broken into smaller pieces using bleach before the researchers assembled them in the correct order and used artificial intelligence to learn their structure. The protein sequence gave them a set of gene “codes” that they could compare to the genes of more than 350 species of birds that exist today.

Femur Genyornis Newtoni

Greater femur geniornis newtoni (left) and a slightly smaller femur from an emu on your right. Credit: Trevor Worthy

“We used data from the B10K project, which currently contains genomes for all major bird lineages, to reconstruct which bird group the extinct bird belonged to. It became quite clear that the eggs were not laid by the megapod and therefore did not belong to them search“explains Josephine Stiller.

So researchers have solved the mystery of the origin of ancient Aussie eggs and given us new knowledge about evolution.

“We are delighted to be conducting an interdisciplinary study using protein sequence analysis to shed light on animal evolution,” said Matthew Collins.

Eggs were consumed by early humans in Australia

Previous studies of egg fragments suggest that the shells were cooked and then thrown into hearths. Charring on the surface of the eggshell confirms this and proves that the earliest Australians ate eggs around 65,000 years ago.

Genyornis eggshell fragments

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

The first inhabitants of Australia probably collected eggs from the nests, which is hypothesized to have caused the extinction of the Genyornis bird, probably 47,000 years ago.

For more information on this study, see The first Australians ate the huge eggs of giant flightless birds.

Reference: Beatrice Demarchi, Josefin Stiller, Alicia Grealy, Meaghan Mackie, Yuan Deng, Tom Gilbert, Julia Clarke, Lucas J. Legendre, Rosa Boano, Thomas John Sicheritz, “Ancient proteins resolve controversy over Genyornis eggshell identity,” Magee, By 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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