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Australian Megafauna A-Z: C is for Centropus

Time for another entry in my Australian megafauna A-Z series. We’ve previously looked at Alkwertatherium and Barawertornis. Both these taxa have come from the north of the continent, so I think it’s only fair we give some attention to fossils from the southern end of the continent this time around. This fossil bird species was found in a cave in the south-eastern corner of South Australia. Ladies and Gentlemen, C is for Centropus colossus, better known as the giant coucal.

Coucals are closely related to cuckoos and roadrunners (it’s a real bird not just a cartoon). They are also related to the enigmatic South American bird the hoatzin, although exact relationships are still being debated. This makes the group one of the earlier diverging lineages of modern birds (Edit: thanks to David in the comments and also me going and doing some further reading, coucals are not closely related to the hoatzin. Moral of the story, check your sources! Thanks for the heads up David!). Today in Australia there is one living species of coucal, the pheasant coucal. However, this taxon only lives in the northern forests of Australia and when the fossil species was found in the late seventies, it came as a bit of a surprise to discover this group so far south.

This is the pheasant coucal (Centropus phasianinus), the only living australian coucal species. Image source: Wikipedia.

This is the pheasant coucal (Centropus phasianinus), the only living australian coucal species. Image source: Wikipedia.

Centropus colossus was described based on an almost complete left humerus by Robert Baird in 1985. Its reduced muscle attachment points on the pectoral crest of the humerus suggest that it was flightless. Modern coucals only fly when disturbed, but the giant coucal was a third larger in size than the pheasant coucal and may therefore have been completely flightless. The presence of the giant coucal in what is today relatively arid country suggests that in the past this region had much more plant cover.

A similar issue has arisen with the discovery of fossil coucal remains from the Thylacoleo Caves in the Nullarbor Plain, south-central Australia. These remains, which are from an undescribed species of coucal were discussed in a talk at CAVEPS 2013 (the conference I recently attended, see here for my quick round up of the week) by Flinders University PhD student Elen Shute (also see this article for further info). The presence of the coucal indicates that this region was thickly covered in vegetation in the past, despite it being desert at present.

A reconstruction of the giant coucal (Centropus colossus) feeding on a small lizard just in front of the sink hole whereits fossils where found. Image by Frank Knight, from Kadimakara.

A reconstruction of the giant coucal (Centropus colossus) feeding on a small lizard just in front of the sink hole whereits fossils where found. Image by Frank Knight, from Kadimakara.

The generic name, Centropus, comes from two Latin words; centro, meaning spine and pus, meaning foot. This is referring to the characteristic elongate nail on the hallux of other taxa in the genus. The specific name refers to the fact that this species is larger than other taxa of this genus.

Well that’s C done, D will be a slightly better known animal, if not the best known of all the Australian megafauna. All will be revealed in the near future…

References

Baird, Robert F., 1985. Avian fossils from Quaternary deposits in ‘Green Waterhole Cave’, south-eastern South Australia. Records of the Australian Museum 37(6): 353–370.

Baird, R.J.F. 1985. Centropus colossus Baird 1985, The Giant Coucal, Pp. 205–208 in Vickers-Rich P., and Van Tets, G.F. (eds), Kadimakara, Extinct Vertebrates of Australia. Princeton University Press: New Jersey. 284 pp.

Clode, D. 2009. Prehistoric giants, the megafauna of Australia. Museum Victoria Nature Series, Melbourne, 72 pp.

Other posts in the Australian Megafauna A-Z series:

A is for Alkwertatherium

B is Barawertornis

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Conference trip: CAVEPS 2013 at Flinders University, Adelaide

It’s been a few weeks since I last posted anything, so I thought it’s about time to remedy that situation. The reason there’s been a lull in activity on the blog (other than the usual PhD and related research) is that all last week I was attending the 14th Conference of Australasian Vertebrate Evolution, Palaeontology and Systematics (better known as CAVEPS) in Adelaide.

The conference is held every two years (the previous meeting was in Perth) and it draws in almost every vertebrate palaeontologist in Australasia, as well as archaeologists, palynologists (fossil pollen people) and several palaeontologists from across the globe. It gives us fossil nerds a chance to catch up, discuss our research, perhaps plan some new collaborations and share a beer or two (or ten). It is exceptionally useful to students like me who have heard, seen or watched these big names in our field but have never met them. We can actually get the chance to put a face to the name and maybe even get to have a chat with them, in addition to meeting fellow students who may we not have even been aware of and make some connections. Palaeontology, like a lot of things in life, is all about who you know!

The conference started off with a series of workshops. There were drawing fossils, fossil casting, radiometric and luminescence dating and phylogenetic methods workshops to choose from. I went to the fossil casting workshop as this was something I had seen done but had never done myself. I had an attempt at casting the tooth row of a wombat which didn’t come out as horribly as I expected!

On the Tuesday the talks began. The first symposium was dedicated to Ruben Arthur Stirton, the man whose 1953 expedition is part of Australian palaeontological legend, and his subsequent researches have had a lasting and profound impact on palaeontology in this part of the world. The conference celebrated the 60th anniversary of the expedition. For the student poster session that evening, myself and Flinders University PhD student Sam Arman tried to quantify Stirton’s impact on Australasian palaeontology by tracing the academic ancestry of the attendees of CAVEPS 2013, finding that 26% of them could trace their lineage back to him. This poster stemmed from an earlier blog post of mine (see here), where I traced my own academic ancestry (Stirton is my great-great-great academic grandfather) and it was a very cool project to do that seemed to go down well with almost everyone at the conference.

My academic great-great-great-grandfather, Ruben Stirton. Image from ucmp.berkeley.edu.

My academic great-great-great-grandfather, Ruben Stirton. Image from ucmp.berkeley.edu.

Wednesday’s talks were very interesting, the main theme being phylogenetics. Colleagues of mine who aren’t particularly interested in the subject even found the talks interesting, so the speakers must have been doing something right! Wednesday night saw the conference auction, which saw several of my hard earned dollars depart from my wallet in exchange for a couple of books and some papers I look forward to reading.

I missed Thursday morning’s lectures due to being just a tad hungover from the night before (I was at a conference after all), but I heard from people who were there that they were very good! After enjoying the afternoon talks it was time for the conference dinner, where we were treated to a performance from Professor Flint and the Flintettes, an experience not to be missed! You can see an example of their work in the video below.

Friday was the last day of the conference, and also the day of my very own talk. This meant I got the unfortunate pleasure of having to wait all week before being able to finally relax! I presented on some fossil penguin research that I will hopefully be submitting soon. That night we relaxed with some dinner and a few celebratory drinks before departing off on the long drive back to Melbourne on Saturday morning. A great week; and I look forward to the next CAVEPS, which will apparently be held in Alice Springs of all places! Another road trip to look forward to then…

A massive thank you to the Flinders crew for putting on such a great conference, fantastic work!

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