Australia, as is well known, is evolution’s vicious playground. There is such an abundance of poisonous, venomous, and deadly creatures there – in the middle of a hostile, continental-sized desert of course – that it’s almost as if the natural world is actively telling humanity to piss off.
Still, it could have been worse. A few million years back and the entire region was populated with even more enormous birds and reptiles, and even more ways to die. As palaentologists from Flinders University have just revealed, there was also at least five species of genuinely massive birds – one the size of an adult grey kangaroo – soaring through the skies above Australia.
Ruling the air 1.6 million years ago to as recently as 10,000 years ago, these “megapodes” were unusual enough by not being flightless, unlike plenty of other gigantic birds. Their less dense bone structure meant that they only weighed as much as 8 kilograms (around 18 pounds), but this was still four times heavier than their most closely related living descendants
Describing them as “tall turkeys” (the Progura genus) if they had long and spindly legs, and “nuggetty chickens” (the newly-minted Latagallina genus) if they were stout, short-legged birds, the researchers said that despite their bulk, they were able to fly and roost in trees.
They lacked effective digging feet, so instead of making mounds as nests like the Australian brushturkey, they probably buried their eggs in warm patches of soil. They were likely omnivores, and swooped down onto a variety of dinners, from insects and fruit to plants and small reptiles.
Writing in the journal Royal Society Open Science, the team explain that their work suggests that the diversity of gigantic birds back during the Pleistocene Epoch was greater than anyone had previously thought.
“These discoveries are quite remarkable because they tell us that more than half of Australia’s megapodes went extinct during the Pleistocene,” lead author Elen Shute, a vertebrate paleontology doctoral student at Flinders, said in a statement.
A combination of climate change and human migration to the region likely killed off these fine beasties. It looks like they at least outlasted the so-called Demon Ducks of Doom, a truly monstrous flightless bird that died around 50,000 years ago.
These flesh-eating creatures were nearly twice the height of a fully-grown kangaroo, weighed 300 kilograms (662 pounds), and hunted their prey down with a beak armed with scissor-like ridges.
Australia is certainly less scary these days – although as history shows us, we shouldn’t let our guard down. A disastrous war between armed Australian partisans and tens of thousands of emus back in 1932 ended in a humiliating loss for our own species, and the legacy of this conflict can still be seen today.