Controversial prehistoric egg identified as the last of the “Demon Ducks of Doom”

Genyornis Egg
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Egg of Genyornis

The only almost 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 predated by a scavenging 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 resolved. In a recent study, scientists from the University of Copenhagen and their global counterparts proved that the eggs could just be the last of a rare line of megafauna known as the “Demon Ducks of Doom”.

Consider living next to a 200kg, two meter tall bird with a huge beak. This was the situation for the first people to settle 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.

Illustration Genyornis

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

According to a recent study by experts at the University of Copenhagen and an international team of colleagues, the flightless bird lays eggs the size of melons, presumably to the delight of ancient humans who likely collected 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.

Ever since experts first found the 50,000-year-old eggshell pieces 40 years ago, the huge eggs have been the subject of debate. It was not known until recently whether the eggs actually belonged to the “demon duck” family, 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 have proposed genyornis newtoniothers thought the shells were from Program Aves, an extinct member of the Megapod species group. Program they were “chicken-like birds” that only weighed five to seven kilos and had huge legs.

Eggshells are very few, according to supporters of the Program bird, for a bird the size of genyornis newtoni to put them.

“However, our protein sequence analysis of eggs clearly shows that eggshells cannot come from megapods and the Program bird,” explains 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 from the Genyornis. As such, we have put an end to a very long and heated debate about the origin of these ovules”, adds co-author and professor at the University of Copenhagen, Matthew Collins, whose research area is evolutionary genetics.

Emu Egg and Genyornis Newtoni

To the right is an emu egg and to the left is the egg, which researchers believe originates from the Demon Duck of Doom, genyornis newtoni. This latest egg weighs about 1.5 kilograms, which is more than 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 the South Australian towns of Wallaroo and Woodpoint, scientists examined the proteins in eggshells.

The proteins were broken down into tiny pieces with bleach before the researchers assembled the pieces in the correct sequence and used artificial intelligence to study their structure. The protein sequences gave them a collection of gene “codes” that they could compare with the genes of more than 350 bird species in existence today.

Femur Genyornis Newtoni

A large femur genyornis newtoni (left) and to its right a somewhat smaller femur from an emu. Credit: Trevor Worthy

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

In this way, researchers have solved the mystery of the origin of the ancient Australian eggs and have provided us with new insights into evolution.

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

The eggs were consumed by early humans in Australia.

Previous research on the egg fragments indicates that the shells were cooked and then disposed of in fire pits. Charring on the eggshell surfaces is confirmation of this, showing that the first Australians devoured 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 equivalent to about 12 whole eggs. Credit: Gifford H. Miller

The first inhabitants of Australia probably collected eggs from nests, which, according to the hypothesis, may 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 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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