The first Australians ate the giant eggs of huge ratites, researchers confirm

Centuries ago, the Demon Ducks of Doom roamed the Earth.

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

Now imagine sharing your neighborhood with them.

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

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

find the mother

Now, although the terrestrial birds disappeared from the face of the earth, 50,000-year-old eggshell fragments were discovered 40 years ago.

Researchers couldn’t figure it out consensus on the rightful mother† Some suggested: Genyornis newtonianwhile others thought the shells came from progura birds – an extinct member of a group of species called megapods. progura were “chicken-like birds,” with large legs and only weighing between five and seven kilograms.

“However, our analysis of egg protein sequences clearly shows that the eggshells cannot come from megapods and the progura bird,” said Josefin Stiller, an assistant professor at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Biology and one of the researchers behind the new study, in a statement

The debate settled down. In a new study published in the magazine PNAS, researchers from the University of Copenhagen and their international colleagues have shown that they can only belong to the last of a unique duck-like lineage of megafauna. The Demon Ducks of Doom.

“They can only from the Genyornis† As such, we’ve settled a very long and heated debate about the origin of these eggs,” said co-author and UCPH professor Matthew Collins, whose field of research is evolutionary genetics.

Egg fragments

DNA helped identify the Genyornis newtonian

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

The researchers analyzed proteins from eggshells found in sand dunes at two different sites in South Australia – Walleroo and Woodpoint.

Then they pulverized the proteins with bleach. After collecting the various small protein particles, the researchers assembled them in the correct order and examined their structure using artificial intelligence.

The protein sequences provided them with a set of ‘codes’ for genes that could be compared to the genes of more than 350 living bird species.

It was clear that the eggs had not been laid by a ‘chicken-like’ bird.

“We used our data from the B10K project, which currently contains taken for all major bird lines, to reconstruct to which bird group the extinct bird likely belonged. It became quite clear that the eggs were not laid by a megapode, and thus did not belong to the progura‘ explains Stiller.

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

thigh bone
A large femur of Genyornis newtoni (left) and on the right a somewhat smaller femur of an emu. Source: Trevor Worthy

Humans played a key role in the extinction

Previous studies of the egg fragments revealed that the shells had been boiled and thrown into fire pits. The charring on eggshell surfaces was ample evidence – indicating that the eggs were consumed by the first humans in Australia about 65,000 years ago.

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

“There is no evidence of Genyornis butcher shop in the archaeological archive. However, eggshell fragments with unique burning patterns consistent with human activity have been found in several places across the continent,” said senior co-author Prof Gifford Miller of the University of Colorado. in a release

“This implies that the first humans didn’t necessarily hunt these huge birds, but routinely raided nests and stole their giant eggs for food,” he said. “Overexploitation of the eggs by humans may have contributed to: Genyornis become extinct.”

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

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