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 the University of Copenhagen and their global colleagues showed that the eggs may be just the last of a rare lineage of megafauna known as the “Demons of Destiny”.
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.
According to a recent study by experts from the University of Copenhagen and an international team of colleagues, the flightless bird laid 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 Ducks” family, also known as dromornithids.
Since 1981, the identity of the bird that lays the eggs has been a matter of debate for scientists around the world. While some suggested Genyornis newtoniothers thought the shells came from program Birds, an extinct member of the megapod species group. program were “chicken-like birds” that weighed only five to seven kilograms and had huge feet.
According to proponents, the eggshells are not enough program 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 program Vogel,” 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 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.
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.
“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 program“, 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 used protein sequence analysis to shed light on animal evolution,” 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.
Australia’s first inhabitants likely collected eggs from nests, which is hypothesized to have led to the genyornis bird’s extinction 47,000 years ago.
For more information on this research, see First Australian People Ate Giant Eggs of Huge Flightless Birds.
Reference: “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 Sicherheititz- Pontén, John Magee, Guojie Zhang, Michael Bunce, Matthew James Collins and Gifford Miller, May 24, 2022, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.