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Fossils Show Giant Turkeys Once Roamed Australia

  • Phil Mercer

A giant, flying turkey as tall as a kangaroo is one of five extinct birds that researchers say once roamed Australia more than 3 million years ago. Scientists say fossils and bones have revealed that Australia was once inhabited by a variety of giant birds.

Fossils suggest Australia was once home to five species of giant chickenlike birds known as megapodes. The largest weighed about 8 kilograms and was about four times the size of a modern wild turkey.

The oldest has been dated back to the Pliocene period, more than 3 million years ago. Scientists at Flinders University believe at least one of these ancient creatures was around as recently as 50,000 years ago — and may have co-existed with Indigenous Australians.

Researcher Elen Shute, a Ph.D. student at Flinders University, says unlike many large extinct birds, such as dodos, these megapodes were able to fly, despite their size.

“All of the five species show that they had strong upper bodies, so the wing bones and they had a big keel on the sternum where the flight muscles attached for the ones that we have got preserved. We believe that they would have been well-capable of flying, say, up into a tree to roost or to escape from a predator,” said Shute.

Paleontologists believe these giant creatures lived alongside some of their modern counterparts. It’s a finding that appears to challenge the theory that today’s birds are shrunken versions of prehistoric ancestors.

More than half of Australia’s megapodes became extinct during the Pliocene Epoch.

The research team has compared fossils gathered from the states of Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia. Some fossils were unearthed in the 1880s, and more recently the discovery of others on the Nullarbor Plain in Western Australia in 2011 prompted scientists at Flinders University to review all of its samples.

The findings have been published this week in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

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