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Extinction of Prehistoric Australian “Thunder Bird” Linked to Early Human Activity

Ostrich Eggs

The last traces of Genyornis newtoni on this planet date back about 45,000 years ago. At over two meters tall, these giant flightless “mihirungs” or “thunder birds” once dominated the landscape of Australia alongside other legendary “megafauna,” including giant sloths. Then, alongside Australia’s other gigantic creatures, Genyornis newtoni disappeared. The disappearance of Australia’s thunder birds came within a few thousand years of the dates in which humans are estimated to have made their way onto the Australian continent. Predictably, this has caused researchers to anticipate a connection between the appearance of the first humans in Australia and the decline of the thunder birds. Changes in climate conditions around this period have also been cited as potentially responsible for the disappearance of Genyornis newtoni and its relatives.

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In 2016, eggshells were found which bore distinctive burn markings, indicating that humans had perhaps cooked and eaten the eggs of Genyornis during the period in which these birds and humans coexisted in Australia. This evidence of human predation upon Genyornis eggs would be an essential missing piece when it comes to understanding the puzzling disappearance of the thunder birds and of Australia’s other “megafauna” species.

Some researchers, however, disputed the theory that the eggshells that were found actually belonged to Genyornis at all. Instead, it was posited that the eggs belonged to the giant extinct megapode, Progura, which was related to modern chickens and turkeys.

A recent study from May of 2022 claims to have resolved this eggshell identity question. The study, published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), claims that through sequencing the ancient proteins still present on the burnt shells, Progura and other megapode species can be ruled out as candidates. This leaves Genyornis as the most likely candidate.

Linking human predation to Genyornis newtoni is a huge step towards understanding the relationship between the earliest humans and the now-extinct animals which populated their world. This discovery also sheds some light on the disappearance of megafauna in general. Such physically formidable creatures would still be humbled by humans if all of the metabolic energy involved in producing eggs was consistently wasted.

While the findings of this study suggest that human predation played a role in the disappearance of Genyornis, the disappearance of this thunder bird and all of the megafauna that died off during this period is likely a result of multiple factors working together. Climate change is thought to have been one of the driving forces of this extinction event. Studies like this one, and others which track the movements of the first humans, increasingly suggest that all other factors may pale in comparison to the influence of human expansion.

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