A flying turkey the size of a kangaroo once roamed Australia

The giant turkey. Image: Elen Shute, Flinders University, from photos by Kim Benson, Tony Rodd and Aaron Camens.

Scientists have uncovered fossils of a flying turkey the size of a kangaroo and weighing up to 8kg.

The big birds lived during the Pleistocene period millions of years ago alongside Australia’s giant extinct marsupials such as diprotodons, marsupial lions and short-faced kangaroos.

The large megapode birds, chunky relatives of today’s malleefowl and brush turkey, were discovered by palaentologists from Flinders University.

The researchers, investigating fossils from Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia, concluded that the remains belong to five different extinct species ranging from 3kg to 8kg in weight.

Today’s malleefowl weighs 2kg.

“These discoveries are quite remarkable because they tell us that more than half of Australia’s megapodes went extinct during the Pleistocene, and we didn’t even realise it until now,” says Flinders PhD candidate and researcher Elen Shute.

It seems that none of the giant megapodes built mounds like their living Australian cousins because they lacked the large feet and specialised claws needed to build them.

It’s likely they buried their eggs in warm sand or soil.

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

The latest findings, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, 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,” says 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.”

Two of the new species come from the Thylacoleo Caves beneath the Nullarbor Plain.

These caves, discovered 15 years ago, have proved to be a treasure trove of new species.

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