Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Kangaroo-Sized Flying Turkey Once Roamed Australia

A giant flying turkey as tall as a kangaroo is among five extinct large megapode birds discovered by palaeontologists at Flinders University. All five birds were chunky relatives of today’s malleefowl and brush-turkeys, but the giant brush-turkey Progura gallinacea, which was as tall as a grey kangaroo, soars above the others.

After carefully comparing megapode fossils from Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia, the researchers concluded that the remains belong to five different extinct species ranging from 3 kg to 8 kg in weight – up to four times the size of a modern malleefowl (2 kg). The big birds lived during the Pleistocene alongside Australia’s giant extinct marsupials, such as diprotodons, marsupial lions and short-faced kangaroos.

“Given several of the largest birds to have lived in Australia in recent times have escaped detection in the fossil record until now, our research shows how little we know of Australia’s immediate pre-human avifauna. Probably many smaller extinct species also await discovery by palaeontologists,” said A/Prof Trevor Worthy.

The extinct megapodes include the “tall turkeys” in the genus Progura, which had long, slender legs, and the “nuggety chickens” with short legs and broad bodies, for which the new genus Latagallina has been created.

It seems that none of these giant megapodes built mounds like their living Australian cousins because they lacked the large feet and specialised claws seen in mound-builders. It’s more likely that they buried their eggs in warm sand or soil, like some living megapodes in Indonesia and the Pacific.

Unlike many large, extinct birds, such as dodos, these megapodes were not flightless. While big and bulky, their long, strong wing bones show they could all fly, and probably roosted in trees.

The latest findings have been more than a century in the making. The first giant megapode species was described from Queensland in the 1880s, and another slightly smaller species was described from South Australia’s Naracoorte Caves in the 1970s.

Since then, the status of the two species has been questioned, and it had been suggested that they were only one species that later dwarfed to become the modern malleefowl. The new evidence shows that this no longer stacks up.

“We compared the fossils described in the 1880s and the 1970s with specimens discovered more recently, and with the benefit of new fossils, differences between species became really clear,” said PhD candidate Elen Shute.

“The two species that were originally described are so different that they belong in separate genera. 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.”