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Thunderbirds are go!

First people in Australia ate eggs of the giant Genyornis newtoni ‘Thunder Bird’.

Genyornis newtoni (pictured) was a huge Australian flightless bird, known commonly as the 'Thunder Bird', with tiny wings and massive legs. This formidable creature stood over 2m tall, weighed between 220 and 240 kilograms, and laid eggs that weighed about 1.5 kilograms. A well-known member of the long-extinct Australian megafauna, Genyornis disappeared about 47,000 years ago, after humans arrived, so it is possible that they were hunted into extinction.

Burnt eggshells that are not reliably associated with Genyornis date to between 50,000 to 55,000 years ago, long after humans first arrived in Australia, some 65,000 years before present. Such eggshell fragments have been found widely across Australia. It is as if the early Aborigines regularly raided the birds’ nests, if they did not actually hunt them. This could well have contributed to the eventual extinction of the flightless beast.

But who laid these mysterious eggs? Do they really belong to the Thunderbird? Another candidate was another extinct bird, the Progura, a turkey-like species that was much smaller.

Researchers at Cambridge University and from Turin tried DNA on a 50,000 year-old eggshell fragment from the Wood Point site in South Australia, but the hot climate had destroyed all traces of it. So, they tried a new technique that extracted protein from the fragments. This they compared to an enormous data base of bird genomes, which showed that the Progura emerged after the bird responsible for the eggs, so Genyornis was indeed the likely candidate.

Perhaps the Aborigines raided so many nests for their eggs that the reproductive strategies of the bird were inadequate to make up for them. We will never know.

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