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Image Credit: Elen Shute, from photos by Kim Benson, Tony Rodd and Aaron Camens

A kangaroo-sized flying Turkey once roamed Australia

  • BY AG Staff |
  • June 14, 2017

The species of bush-turkey was equal in height to a grey kangaroo and weighed about 8 kg, making the specimen four times the size of the modern malleefowl.

FLINDERS UNIVERSITY palaeontologists have discovered evidence of a large flying turkey that lived in Australia more than a million years ago.

The finding comes from a recent study that substantially adds to our knowledge of megapodes, revealing that more than half of our native species in that group are  extinct. The megapodes -- an Australasian family of medium-sized chicken-like birds that typically incubate their eggs in mounds on the ground – includes modern-day brush-turkeys.

The researchers analysed megapode fossils from various sites in Queensland, News South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia, then compared these to descriptions made in the 1880s and 1970s of museum specimens, and modern species.

All five species are said to have been distant relatives of the modern malleefowl (Leipoa ocellata) and bush-turkey (Alectura lathami). However, researchers found that one of the megapode fossils, a species of giant brush-turkey was the height of a modern-day grey kangaroo.

The five species ranged from 3--8 kg, making the largest one four times the size of the modern mallefowl.

Previously it was suggested that the fossils made up one single species, which eventually evolved into the modern mallefowl. Now, differences between the species are clear.

“The two species that were originally described are so different that they belong in separate genera,” according to Elen Shute, a Flinders University PhD candidate. “These and three more new species were all more closely related to each other than they are to the living malleefowl.

“What’s more, we have found bones of malleefowl in fossil deposits up to a million years old, alongside bones of three extinct species of various sizes, so there’s really no evidence that dwarfing took place.”

Trevor Worthy, an associate professor at Flinders University, said that several of the largest birds to have lived in Australia in recent times have escaped detection in the fossil record until now, adding, "our research shows how little we know of Australia’s immediate pre-human avifauna... Probably many smaller extinct species also await discovery by palaeontologists."

Two of the species discovered were found in the Caves of the Nullarbor Plain,  where fossils of the  long-extinct marsupial lion (Thylacoleo carnifex) were discovered in the early 2000s. Since the lion’s discovery the caves have yielded many treasures for palaeontologists.

The ‘tall turkeys’ were not flightless, like other extinct birds such as the dodo. Researchers found that despite being heavy, strong wing bones allowed them to take flight, and it’s likely they also roosted in trees.

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