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Chicken feet clue to giant fowl's lineage

Research & Development

EVIDENCE that a giant land fowl, which thrived on a Pacific island before humans arrived, had its own evolutionary lineage has been unearthed by South Australian researchers.

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The discovery adds to a growing body of knowledge suggesting many species of giant birds survived in Australia and the Pacific region for millions of years after they died out elsewhere.

Sylviornis neocaledoniae is an extinct giant land fowl that roamed New Caledonia in the South Pacific until about 2500 years ago, when it was hunted to extinction by the island’s first human inhabitants.

Until now, the flightless bird known as the Giant New Caledonian Fowl had usually been interpreted as closely related to megapodes or mound-building birds, such as the Australian brush turkey and malleefowl.

But a team led by Flinders University researcher Trevor Worthy found the fowl, with its large distinctive head and unusual hinged bill, had its own unique evolutionary lineage.

In a detailed study of the post-cranial skeleton, they reconstructed it as standing about 0.8m tall and weighing 27-34 kg – much bigger than the 2.4 kg brush turkey.

The research team also looked at the foot structure of the Giant New Caledonian Fowl and found it had feet similar to the modern day chicken.

“When we looked at the bones of its feet in detail, it was apparent this bird did not make mounds like most megapodes,” Dr Worthy said.

Detailed analysis of the bones showed that Sylviornis is most closely related to another rare extinct giant fowl from nearby Fiji called Megavitiornis altirostris (the Noble Megapode), and that together these are distant relatives of all other land fowl.

“From these analyses we can be reasonably sure this bird sat on its eggs like ordinary birds, rather than burying its eggs as only megapodes do,” Dr Worthy said.

Fellow Flinders University researcher Professor Michael Lee said the existence of the Giant New Caledonian Fowl had been known about for some time but the latest study had highlighted their importance.

“We have known about these bones for decades but no one has ever really looked into it – they are not very well studied compared to other birds,” he said.

“It is a completely new lineage of bird.”

Prof Lee said it was impossible to provide an estimate of how many of the “bizarre looking birds” existed in New Caledonia before the arrival of humans but it was likely they were extremely abundant like the pigeons of modern society.

 “Our research shows that like Australia and New Zealand, the Pacific Islands also had their own unique flightless birds which were mostly wiped out when humans arrived,” he said.

“We don’t yet know the impacts humans in the Pacific Islands had on the Giant New Caledonian Fowl like we do in Australia in New Zealand, but we do know they became extinct shortly after humans came along.”

The next step for researchers will be to look at how the mysterious giant fowl fit into the big picture and how much of a biodiversity hole they caused when they were wiped out.

“They are much more special than we thought,” Prof Lee said.

“We would need to look more into the interaction between humans and the bird and whether there is any evidence of butcher or from humans eating them and dropping the bones.”

The research study is a collaboration between Flinders University, the University of Adelaide and the University of Canberra.

It is published today on PlosOne online and adds to a growing understanding of a lost diversity of primitive giant fowl in the Oceania, or Australian region, which was full of giant fowl which survived for millions of years until human arrival before going extinct in just thousands.

South Australia’s capital Adelaide has three-long standing public universities, Flinders UniversityUniversity of South Australia, and the University of Adelaide, each of which are consistently rated highly in the international higher education rankings.

This is a Creative Commons story from The Lead South Australia, a news service providing stories about innovation in South Australia. Please feel free to use the story in any form of media. The story sources are linked in with the copy and all contacts are willing to talk further about the story.

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