Researchers have finally cracked a 41-year-old mystery about an old eggshell from a large, extinct land bird with a demonic nickname.
In 1981, researchers in Australia discovered the charred remains of many eggs from several cooking fires used by prehistoric humans, dating to about 50,000 years ago. Some of the eggs were identified as eggs from emus. But some oversized specimens belonged to a second, unknown bird. For years, researchers argued about the identity of the big bird. But given the size and age of the eggs, two challengers arose over time: Proguraa group of large turkey-like birds, or Genyornissometimes called “demon ducks of doom” because of their enormous size and evolutionary relationship to the smaller seabirds.
Now a new analysis using sophisticated protein sequencing technology and artificial intelligence has put the debate to rest. The results, which were published May 24 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesfirmly establish the identity of the eggs as Genyornis newtoniAustralia’s last “thunder bird”.
Genyornis newtoni was a scary creature. It was over 6.5 feet (2 meters) high and tipped the scales at up to 530 pounds (240 kg) of beak, legs and feathered muscles, according to Australian Museum. “I can imagine it should be quite annoying to have this mega duck looking down on one!” lead author Beatrice Demarchi, an archaeologist studying bones and other organic materials at the University of Turin in Italy, told WordsSideKick.com in an email.
Fittingly, these mega-ducks also laid large eggs; each weighed about 1.6 kg, about the size of a melon. Genyornis‘huge eggs would have been an ideal source of protein for the indigenous people of Australia, provided they could safely retrieve them from the nests of the large birds. In fact, researchers now suspect that human appetite for melon-sized eggs may have helped drive Genyornis to extinction, according to Natural History Museum, London.
Although pieces of fossilized eggs may not be as flashy as a fossilized skull, “small and mundane things like eggshells can reveal a lot about what the environment looked like,” Demarchi said. Curiosity about the ancient environment led researchers to rethink shell fragments discovered in the 1980s at two Australian sites, using a different technique: protein sequencing.
When researchers try to identify a particular species, DNA sequencing is usually preferable to protein sequencing. Proteins do not mutate as fast or randomly as DNA does, which means that their genetic signatures are more difficult to detect. “But they last about 10 times longer than DNA,” meaning there may be plenty of protein preserved in older materials where much of the DNA has been eroded over time, Demarchi said. Given the age and burial temperature of the eggshell fragments (which had been boiled over an open flame), most of the DNA in the egg samples was too degraded to be useful. However, the proteins were still in relatively good shape.
After sequencing these molecules and determining which genes would have produced them, the researchers used a special algorithm to compare their findings with the genomes of more than 350 living bird species. The results revealed that the eggs were not laid by a group of large-footed chicken-like birds called megapods and therefore did not belong to Progura genus, said study co-author Josefin Stiller, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, in a statement.
Research such as this provides valuable insights into the impact of humans on nature, and shows that where our ancestors lived and what they ate may have contributed to the extinction of certain species. Even though the so-called demon ducks no longer exist, the lessons from our previous interactions with them continue to resonate. Demarchi and her colleagues hope to continue their work “by looking at other great birds from the past and developing their relationships with humans at different times,” Demarchi said.
Originally published on Live Science.
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