Human Hunting Linked to Extinction of Giant Australian Bird

Posted on February 1, 2016

Megalania prisca hunting Genyornis Newtoni in Australia

A giant flightless bird named Genyornis newtoni roamed Australia about 50,000 years ago before going extinct. Researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder have linked the extinction of the 500 pound bird to ancient humans who consumed the birds' eggs. The illustration above shows the bird being hunted by a different predator, a giant 1 ton lizard named Megalania prisca.

The researchers analyzed Genyornis eggshells from more than 2,000 localities across Australia. They found burn patterns on some eggshell fragments that indicate humans were collecting and cooking its eggs. The researchers say the evidence shows that pieces of the eggs were exposed to a wide range of temperatures. The Genyornis eggs were cantaloupe sized and weighed about 3.5 pounds. They would have made a very large meal for ancient hunters.

CU-Boulder Professor Gifford Miller, associate director of CU-Boulder's Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, says in a statement, "We consider this the first and only secure evidence that humans were directly preying on now-extinct Australian megafauna. We have documented these characteristically burned Genyornis eggshells at more than 200 sites across the continent."

Miller also says, "We can't come up with a scenario that a wildfire could produce those tremendous gradients in heat," Miller said. "We instead argue that the conditions are consistent with early humans harvesting Genyornis eggs, cooking them over fires, and then randomly discarding the eggshell fragments in and around their cooking fires."

Researchers also found that the burn patterns on the ancient Genyornis eggs are similar to patterns found on burned eggshells of emus. Emus are a modern flightless bird in Australia that weigh about 100 pounds.

A research paper on the findings was published here in the journal Nature Communications.

Image: Illustration by Peter Trusler/Monash University