Science

Controversial prehistoric egg 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. It was found by N. Spooner and collected by Gifford H. Miller, South Australia. The presence of four puncture wounds on the egg indicates that it was eaten by a scavenging marsupial. Photo credit: Gifford H Miller

Researchers identify primordial birds behind prehistoric giant eggs

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

Imagine living next to a 200 kg, two meter tall bird with a huge beak. This was the situation for the first humans to settle in Australia around 65,000 years ago.

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

Genyorni's Illustratio

Illustration of Genyornis newtoni being chased by a giant lizard in Australia about 50,000 years ago. Photo credit: Illustration 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, presumably to the delight of ancient people, who most likely collected them and consumed them as an essential source of protein. The research has just been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The giant eggs have been the subject of debate ever since experts first found the 50,000-year-old pieces of eggshell 40 years ago. Until recently, it was not known if the eggs really belonged to the “demon duck” family, also known as dromornithids.

Since 1981, the identity of the bird that lays the eggs has been a matter of debate among scientists around the world. While some suggested Genyornis newtoniothers thought the shells came from Push through Birds, an extinct member of the megapod species group. Push through were “chicken-like birds” that weighed only five to seven kilograms and had huge feet.

According to proponents, the eggshells are not enough Push through bird, for a bird that size Genyornis newtoni to lay them.

“However, our analysis of protein sequences from the eggs clearly shows that the eggshells cannot come from megapods and theirs Push through Vogel,” explains Josefin Stiller, assistant professor at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Biology and one of the researchers behind the new study.

“They can only be of the Genyornis. With that, we ended a very long and heated debate about the origin of these eggs,” adds co-author and University of Copenhagen professor Matthew Collins, whose research field is evolutionary genetics.

Emu Egg and Genyornis Newtoni

On the right is an emu egg and on the left is the egg that researchers believe came from the Demon Duck of Doom. Genyornis newtoni. The latter egg weighs about 1.5 kilograms, which is more than 20 times the weight of an average hen’s egg. Credit: Trevor Worthy

Protein analyzes and a gene database identified the mother

In sand dunes in the South Australian cities of Wallaroo and Woodpoint, the scientists studied the proteins from eggshells.

The proteins were broken into small pieces by bleach before the researchers assembled the pieces 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 currently existing bird species.

Femur Genyornis Newtoni

A large femur off Genyornis newtoni (left) and right a slightly smaller femur from an emu. Credit: Trevor Worthy

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

The researchers have thus solved the mystery of the origin of the ancient Aussie eggs and provided us with new insights into evolution.

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

The eggs were eaten by the first people in Australia

Previous research on the egg shards suggests that the shells were boiled and then discarded in fireplaces. Charring on eggshell surfaces confirms this and proves that the earliest Australians devoured the eggs around 65,000 years ago.

Egg shell fragments from Genyornis

Egg shell fragments from an old nest in South Australia. The mass of eggshell collected on one square meter is equal to about 12 whole eggs. Photo credit: Gifford H Miller

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

For more information on this research see The first Australians ate giant eggs from giant flightless birds.

References: “Ancient Proteins Solve Controversy Over Identity of Genyornis Eggshell” 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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