We already know the weak point that extinguished the greatest bird that ever lived

Artistic recreation of what the Dromornis stirnoni might have looked like.

Artistic recreation of what the Dromornis stirnoni might have looked like.
Image: Peter Trusler / Universidad de Flinders

The Dromornis stirtoni It is probably the largest bird that has ever set foot on our planet. This distant relative of ducks and chickens was four times the size of a modern ostrich, reaching a height of four meters and weighing up to 500 kilograms. Their size has earned them the nickname of devil ducks.

Although they were equipped with large beaks, the devil ducks were probably vegetarians, and in fact had much more to fear from early humans than our ancestors could have feared from them. In fact, a new study published in Anatomical Record found a fact that could explain their extinction: they grew too slowly.

Dr. Trevor Worthy and his colleagues at Flinders University found the fossil remains of several bones of Dromornis stirtoni. By analyzing their structure, the researchers were able to determine the growth rate of these extinct animals as well as the moment at which they reached sufficient maturity to reproduce.

“We studied parts of the fossilized bones of these thunderbirds under a microscope to identify biological signals,” explains Professor Anusuya Chinasamy-Turan, from the University of Cape Town and co-author of the study.. “The microscopic structure provides a lot of information about how long it took these animals to reach maturity and reach sexual maturity. We can even tell when the females have started to ovulate.”

On the left, a femur of Dromornis stirnoni.  On the right a modern Emu femur.

On the left, a femur of Dromornis stirnoni. On the right a modern Emu femur.
Photo: Flinders University

The result of these analyzes indicates that the mallard ducks grew very rapidly during the first two years of life, but did not reach sexual maturity until they were 10 years old. This is a considerable time if we compare it with that of modern species such as the Emuss, which can reproduce at two years.

Despite this delay in their growth, the Dromornis stirtoni they managed very well to persist for thousands of years, but shortly after the arrival of the first humans on the Australian continent, the birds became extinct. Although it seems unlikely that Australia’s earliest settlers hunted roe deer adults, yes it is likely that they did this to the young specimens, and of course they raided their nests. Fossil remains of eggs of this species show burning patterns highly consistent with human activity. The evidence in this regard is still the subject of debate, but of course the speed of maturation was a determining factor in the condemnation of the species. This is something they have in common with some species of dinosaur whose eggs they took too long to hatchto be at the mercy of predators or drastic changes in the environment. [Flinders University, vía IFL Science]

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