Humans ate giant ancient bird into extinction

Jan 29, 2016, 4:27 PM EST
Cooking ostrich egg. (Source: Meraj Chhaya/flickr)
Cooking ostrich egg. (Source: Meraj Chhaya/flickr)

The ancient, giant bird Genyornis newtoni, weighed about 500 pounds and was flightless. A recent study conducted by American and Australian scientists analyzed burn patterns on eggshell fragments, and suggests that humans hunted the bird for its eggs which were the size of cantaloupes, and likely weighed 3.5 pounds. The Christian Science Monitor writes:

Other gargantuan examples of Australia’s frightening animal past include a 1,000 pound kangaroo and a wombat the size of a moderately sized car. Despite their impressive size, these megafauna were no match for humans; about 85 percent of these animals went extinct after people arrived on the scene.
The study, published Friday in the science journal Nature Communications, is the first to shine some light on the connection between humans and the extinction of Australia’s gigantic megafauna.
"We consider this the first and only secure evidence that humans were directly preying on now-extinct Australian megafauna," Gifford Miller, a geology professor at University of Colorado, Boulder.
Humans likely enjoyed the bird’s meaty goodness, and there’s also strong evidence that people were cooking its enormous eggs. Each egg was the size of a cantaloupe and weighed about 3.5 pounds, according to co-author Gifford Miller of the University of Colorado Boulder.
Miller and his team unearthed prehistoric burnt Genyornis eggshell fragments in tight clusters less than 10 feet in diameter, with no other eggshell fragments nearby. In a press release, he said that some individual fragments from the same clusters had heat gradient differences of nearly 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, conditions virtually impossible to reproduce with natural wildfires there.
Miller explained that amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, decompose in a predictable fashion inside eggshells over time. When an egg is burned at one end but not the other, the scorching leaves behind a distinctive “gradient” from total amino acid decomposition to minimal. Such a gradient could only be produced by a localized heat source, likely an ember, he said, and not from the sustained high heat produced regularly by Australian wildfires both in the distant past and today.