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Prehistoric 'giga-goose' bird recently discovered was a true giant

After 128 years of exploration and fossil excavation, researchers have finally unearthed the skull of Genyornis newtoni.

The skull of Australia’s own giant megafauna bird was discovered by researchers from Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia, shedding new light on the species that once roamed the Australian outback.

New skull fossils of Genyornis newtoni

The only previously known skull of Genyornis newtoni, reported in 1913, was heavily damaged, leaving much about this bird a mystery.

However, recent excavations from the saline, dry beds of Lake Callabonna in South Australia have brought new, nearly complete skull fossils to light.

These findings, attributed to field trips in 2019, provide a clearer picture of what this ancient bird looked like.

Insights into the fossil skull

Published in the journal Historical Biology, the detailed description of this remarkable skull has enabled researchers to explore the ecology, functional morphology, and evolutionary relationships of Genyornis newtoni.

Weighing around 230 kg, this bird was approximately five times the weight of the Southern Cassowary.

The skull features a massive braincase, large jaws, and a distinctive casque on its head.

Its upper beak, in particular, shows surprising morphology, setting it apart from its closest relatives.

Genyornis newtoni had a tall and mobile upper jaw like that of a parrot but shaped like a goose, a wide gape, strong bite force, and the ability to crush soft plants and fruit on the roof of their mouth,” explains Flinders University researcher Phoebe McInerney.

Unraveling evolutionary mysteries

The skull also showed complex similarities to early diverging waterfowl lineages, such as the South American Screamers and the Australian Magpie Goose.

“The exact relationships of Genyornis within this group have been complicated to unravel; however, with this new skull, we have started to piece together the puzzle which shows, simply put, this species to be a giant goose,” McInerney adds.

Co-author Dr. Trevor Worthy was particularly excited about discovering the first fossil upper bill of Genyornis.

“For the first time, we could put a face on this bird, one very different from any other bird, yet like a goose,” he says.

Reconstructing the past

Examining the morphology of the skull provided researchers with insights into how the head functioned, including muscle and joint movement.

“The form of a bone, and structures on it, are partly related to the soft tissues that interact with them, such as muscles and ligaments, and their attachment sites or passages,” Co-author Jacob Blokland notes.

Genyornis newtoni skull. Credit: Jacob Blokland
Genyornis newtoni skull. Credit: Jacob Blokland

Using modern birds as comparatives, they are able to put flesh back on the fossils and bring them back to life.

Blokland has successfully reconstructed Genyornis newtoni through a scientifically accurate model, revealing its true form.

Aquatic adaptations

The study on skull fossils also uncovered several unusual adaptations for aquatic habitats in Genyornis newtoni.

These adaptations include features that allowed the bird to protect its ears and throat from water influx when submerged.

The ability to close off its ears and throat would have been crucial for an animal living in or around water.

These adaptations suggest that Genyornis newtoni was well-suited to life in aquatic environments. The bird’s ability to thrive in such habitats indicates a strong ecological connection to freshwater areas.

However, the transition of freshwater bodies in northern South Australia to salt lakes may have played a significant role in the extinction of Genyornis newtoni.

The loss of suitable freshwater habitats would have made survival increasingly difficult for this species.

Greater understanding of Genyornis newtoni

With this new skull, researchers have gained a greater understanding of Genyornis newtoni. They have identified its unique features, including its tall and mobile upper jaw and its strong bite force.

The skull also provided information about the bird’s way of life, such as its diet and habitat preferences.

This discovery offers invaluable insights into the history of these giant birds. Researchers now have a clearer picture of how Genyornis newtoni lived and interacted with its environment.

Additionally, this finding helps explain the factors that led to the species’ eventual disappearance from the Australian landscape.

The full study was published in the journal Historical Biology.


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