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Oldest Australian vulture emerges from the fossil record

A team of researchers led by Flinders University and the South Australian Museum has described the first fossil vulture discovered in Australia. Although the remains – discovered in 1901 in South Australia – were initially thought to belong to an eagle, new analyses have revealed that they are in fact the fossils of a prehistoric vulture (Cryptogyps lacertosus – meaning powerful hidden vulture) that lived in Australia during the late Pleistocene, between 500 and 50 thousand years ago.

“Today we’re familiar with a wedge-tailed eagle picking at a kangaroo carcass on the roadside. Thousands of years ago, a very different bird would have filled the role of carrion consumer – one most people would now associate with the plains of Africa,” said study lead author Ellen Mather, a paleontologist at Flinders University.

“We compared the fossil material to birds of prey from around the world, and it became clear right away that this bird was not adapted to being a hunter, and so was not a hawk or an eagle. The features of the lower leg bone are too underdeveloped to support the musculature needed for killing prey. When we placed Cryptogyps in an evolutionary tree, this confirmed our suspicions that the bird was a vulture, and we are very excited to finally publish on this species.”

This prehistoric bird shared the skies with wedge-tailed eagles during a period when enormous marsupial herbivores such as Diprotodon or fierce carnivores like the marsupial lion Thylacoleo also roamed parts of Australia. However, despite initial assumptions, the Cryptogyps was not an eagle, but an “Old world” vulture, a group previously unknown to have lived in Australia.

These findings reveal that the diversity of predatory birds was much greater in the past, and that the extinction of vultures has probably had major ecological implications. 

“Vultures play a very important role in ecosystems by accelerating the consumption of carcasses and reducing the spread of diseases,” Dr. Mather explained. “The loss of Cryptogyps could have caused a drastic upheaval in ecosystem function for a very long time as other species scrambled to fill in its niche.”

The study is published in the journal Zootaxa.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer  

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