Ancient 'demon duck' identified by Australian researchers

The large eggs have been at the center of controversy since researchers first discovered the 50,000-year-old eggshell fragments 40 years ago.

 Dromaius novaehollandiae - Emu (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Dromaius novaehollandiae - Emu
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

An Australian study published in late May has identified the ancient birds who laid melon-sized eggs, the origins of which have been a mystery since their shells were discovered in fragments 40 years ago. 

The bird, from the species genyornis newtoni, stood over six feet tall and lived alongside Australia's prehistoric human population roughly 65,000 years ago. The peer-reviewed study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America (PNAS), suggested that the humans likely partook of the massive eggs as a source of protein. 

G. newtoni is one of the "Demon ducks of doom," so called because of their monstrous and duck-like appearance. Some scientists (albeit the minority) believe they may even have been carnivorous. 

Gene database and protein analysis revealed the mother

Researchers were able to identify the eggs' origins via protein sequencing data, eliminating all other known possibilities in the realm of ancient Australian egg-laying megafauna. 

 Dromaius novaehollandiae (Latham, 1790), Emu, Ikara-Flinders National Park, South Australia, 13 August 2018 (credit: Wikimedia Commons) Dromaius novaehollandiae (Latham, 1790), Emu, Ikara-Flinders National Park, South Australia, 13 August 2018 (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

"They can only be of the Genyornis. As such, we have laid to rest a very long and heated debate about the origin of these eggs."

Study co-author and UCPH professor Matthew Collins'

Scientists analyzed proteins from eggshells found at two different points in southern Australia with the help of artificial intelligence to ensure the protein sequences were structured correctly. They thus obtained a series of "codes" for genes that were subsequently compared to the genes of over 350 living species of birds.

"We are thrilled to have conducted an interdisciplinary study in which we used protein sequence analysis to shed light on animal evolution."

Prof. Matthew Collins

The study was conducted by researchers from the University of Copenhagen, together with international colleagues from the United States, Italy, Australia, England and China.