Am obsessed with scientific stuff and when I came across a research findings published in the journal Royal Society Open Science which revealed that today’s modern birds are not shrunk down versions of their extinct relatives, i was fascinated. I have always imagined such stuff before but the study of fossils suggesting Australia was once home to five species of now-extinct giant megapodes, a chunky, chickenesque cousins of modern mound building brush turkeys and malleefowl somehow satisfied me. According to researchers, the largest of these extinct birds weighed 8 kilograms and was about four times the size of today’s brush turkey. The lead author of the research and PhD candidate at Flinders University Elen Shute said it’s been quite surprising because whereas before, we suspected there may have been one or two extinct species whose identity was uncertain, we’ve actually discovered that there were five different species running around Australia prior to humans arriving on the continent.Ms Shute said it was difficult to precisely date when the different species appeared and became extinct in Australia, but at least one was around as recently as 50,000 years ago and may have coexisted with Indigenous Australians that arrived on the continent.Eggshell fossils that scientists believe belonged to a megapode have been uncovered with burn marks, which “shows they were cooked and eaten by people”, said Ms Shute.Though we think of the Nullarbor Plain as a dry, treeless expanse with a desert climate, the area would have been very different millions of years ago and well suited to the brush turkey’s bigger relatives.”All of the accumulating evidence is that the Nullarbor Plain was a mixture of woodland and grassland environment during the Pleistocene,” Ms Shute said.
And these big birds were likely a common feature across the country given the diversity of locations in which their fossils have been found.”We don’t know exactly how they were living in that landscape and the role they were playing in the ecology, but it’s likely they were a much more important element in the fauna than they are today,” she said.Like their modern versions, the ancient birds used external sources of heat to incubate their eggs.But a comparison of the shape of their claws reveals they may have had very different habits.Modern megapodes have long, flat claws perfect for raking together piles of leaves and soil to incubate their eggs.But the claws of the extinct species don’t look like they’re specialised for that at all, Ms Shute said.Rather, they have short, deeply curved claws which are similar to megapodes in Indonesia and the Pacific that buried their eggs in warm sand, rather than nest mounds.”We think all these extinct species were burying their eggs directly into warm ground, rather than building mounds,” Ms Shute said.She said this could indicate a common vulnerability that led to the larger birds going extinct.“Given several of the largest birds to have lived in Australia in recent times have escaped detection in the fossil record until now, our research shows how little we know of Australia’s immediate prehuman avifauna,” says Associate Professor Trevor Worthy. “Probably many smaller extinct species also await discovery by palaeontologists,”Alongside the ‘tall turkeys’ fluttered a variety of ‘nuggety chickens’ which have had to be given a new category of their own, genus Latagallina. In my view, these findings offers an interesting understanding of how birds have evolved over the years.