In a groundbreaking discovery, researchers at Flinders University have uncovered fossil remains of two remarkable avian species from the Pleistocene era, more than 50,000 years ago, shedding new light on Australia’s ancient fauna. These extraordinary finds include the country’s sole vulture and a formidable, long-extinct eagle. Alongside a comprehensive scientific publication in “Alcheringa: An Australasian Journal of Palaeontology,” a captivating visual reconstruction of these avian predators will debut at the World Heritage-listed Naracoorte Caves in South Australia’s Limestone Coast this month.
Exploring Extinct Megafauna and Avian Predators
Picture this: majestic avian predators soaring through landscapes in southern Australia, a realm once dominated by colossal creatures like the giant Diprotodon optatum and the ferocious marsupial lion Thylacoleo carnifex. Dr. Ellen Mather, a prominent figure in the Flinders University Palaeontology lab, paints a vivid picture of these magnificent birds competing for sustenance in such a prehistoric milieu.
The Flinders team’s research builds upon their extensive investigations into now-extinct megafauna, including the recent identification of Australia’s largest-ever flying eagle, aptly named Dynatoaetus gaffae by Dr. Mather, Associate Professor Trevor Worthy, Dr. Aaron Camens, and their colleagues.
The Unveiling of a New Eagle Species and Australia’s Lone Vulture
In their latest scholarly contribution, Dr. Mather and Associate Professor Worthy, in collaboration with fellow Flinders paleontologists Dr. Diane Fusco, Professor Mike Lee (from Flinders and the SA Museum), and Dr. John Hellstrom (from the University of Melbourne), provide comprehensive insights into the second largest eagle ever documented—Dynatoaetus pachyosteus. This impressive species is exclusively identified from fossilized remains discovered within the Victoria Cave at Naracoorte Caves.
Dynatoaetus pachyosteus, with a wingspan resembling that of the contemporary wedge-tailed eagle, is distinguished by its robust skeletal structure, particularly its leg bones, suggesting an even more formidable and heavily built predator. Notably, this genus, Dynatoaetus, was indigenous to Australia, exclusive to this continent. These findings suggest that this group of raptors had a longstanding presence in Australia rather than being recent arrivals, although analyses hint at potential relationships with the large Crested Serpent Eagle and Philippine Eagle found in Southeast Asia and New Guinea’s tropical jungles.
Unmasking the Vulture and Eagle Species
The research team has also introduced the Australian vulture, Cryptogyps lacertosus, a bird comparable in size to the modern wedge-tailed eagle. This discovery is based on well-preserved wing bones from a single individual, previously recovered from an underwater cave known as the Green Waterhole or Fossil Cave near Mount Gambier. In their recent publication, the Flinders University scientists link these South Australian findings to bones unearthed in a Nullarbor cave in Western Australia, suggesting that Cryptogyps was a more primitive vulture than previously believed.
The artwork depicting these extinct Australian birds of prey, skillfully crafted by South Australian artist and natural historian John Barrie, will be on public display at the Naracoorte Fossil Centre.
Implications and Insights
Intriguingly, while most vultures in the Aegypiinae subfamily exhibit lightweight wing bones filled with air cavities for extended soaring flights, Cryptogyps appears to lack this adaptation. This may indicate that Cryptogyps was not as proficient at soaring compared to its extant counterparts.
Both species of Dynatoaetus were found in deposits at Victoria Fossil Cave, implying they inhabited the region between 500,000 and 200,000 years ago. Eagle fossils are exceptionally rare, making it challenging to pinpoint the exact time of their extinction. However, the researchers employed uranium-series dating of calcite rafts on the fossils to estimate that Cryptogyps lacertosus existed around 60,000 years ago, surviving up to Australia’s megafaunal mass extinction. Dr. Mather suggests that the extinction of large marsupials likely played a pivotal role in the demise of Cryptogyps and possibly the giant eagles as well.
Intriguingly, Australia’s current inland fauna boasts only one sizable raptor. This is a unique situation globally, as most continents are home to several eagles and vultures. Dr. Mather’s research underscores not only the loss of substantial mammal groups due to extinction but also the recent disappearance of vultures and two other eagle species, capable of preying on larger quarry than the wedge-tailed eagle—a testament to Australia’s complex and dynamic ecological history.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Fossil Avian Predators
Q: What were the key discoveries in this research about ancient Australian birds of prey?
A: The research unveiled two significant findings. Firstly, it introduced the Dynatoaetus pachyosteus, the second-largest eagle known in Australia’s history, suggesting it was even more powerful than the contemporary wedge-tailed eagle. Secondly, it revealed the existence of the Cryptogyps lacertosus, Australia’s lone vulture, which was more primitive than previously believed.
Q: How old are these ancient avian species?
A: These avian predators lived during the Pleistocene period, over 50,000 years ago. The specific timeframe for Dynatoaetus and Cryptogyps existence falls within a range of 200,000 to 500,000 years ago.
Q: What implications does the research have for Australia’s current fauna?
A: The research highlights the recent loss of large raptor species, including vultures and other eagles capable of preying on larger animals. Today, Australia’s inland fauna hosts only one substantial raptor, a unique situation compared to most continents.
Q: Why is the discovery of these avian predators important?
A: Discovering and understanding these ancient avian species provide valuable insights into Australia’s prehistoric ecosystem and the impact of megafaunal extinctions. It sheds light on the diversity and dynamics of Australia’s avian fauna during that time.
More about Fossil Avian Predators
- Flinders University’s Palaeontology Lab
- Alcheringa: An Australasian Journal of Palaeontology
- Naracoorte Caves World Heritage Site