Prehistoric Australian vultures and eagles brought to life in ‘gory’ new painting | Australia news

Ancient birds of prey feast on the carcass of a giant wombat-like creature; a committee of vultures waits its turn while a huge eagle feeds strips of bloody flesh to its chick.

Flinders University researchers have discovered new details of these Pleistocene-era raptors, and their findings have been brought to life in a beautiful, “gory” painting.

Australia’s only known vulture is Cryptogyps lacertosus, and the newly discovered eagle is Dynatoaetus pachyosteus.

The scientists found the vulture was more primitive than previously thought, lacking the soaring ability of current vultures, and that it was still alive approximately 60,000 years ago, which is more recent than previous estimates.

And they found the eagle, which lived up to 500,000 years ago, was second only in size to Dynatoaetus gaffae, the biggest eagle that ever lived on the Australian continent.

The humerus of the newly described Dynatoaetus pachyosteus compared to that of the living wedge-tailed eagle
The humerus of the newly discovered eagle, Dynatoaetus pachyosteus (left) compared to that of the living wedge-tailed eagle. Photograph: Ellen Mather

The vulture likely weighed about 6kg, and the eagle could have weighed up to 12kg.

Dr Ellen Mather, who also discovered D. gaffae, led the team, whose results were published in Alcheringa: An Australasian Journal of Palaeontology on Friday.

“Imagine these majestic birds competing for food in landscapes across southern Australia ruled by megafauna such as the giant wombat-like Diprotodon optatum and the ‘marsupial lion’ Thylacoleo carnifex,” Mather said.

“This new eagle species, Dynatoaetus pachyosteus, would have been similar in wingspan to a wedge-tailed eagle, now Australia’s largest living eagle of prey, but its bones seem much more robust – especially its leg bones, suggesting it was even more powerful and heavily built.

“This genus (Dynatoaetus) was endemic to Australia, meaning it was found nowhere else in the world.

“Now we have found two species and know this genus is not particularly closely related to any eagles outside Australia, we suggest that this group of raptors must have been in Australia for quite some time, rather than being a relatively recent arrival.”

The wing and shoulder bones of Cryptogyps lacertosus
The wing and shoulder bones of Cryptogyps lacertosus, Australia’s only known vulture, found within near Mt Gambier. (Scale bar 5mm). Photograph: Ellen Mather

A partial skeleton of the vulture was found in the Fossil Cave (formerly known as the Green Waterhole) in the Tantanoola district in South Australia, while the eagle bones were found in Naracoorte’s Victoria Fossil Cave.

Natural historian and artist John Barrie assessed the new information, combined it with his extensive knowledge of fossils from the area, and the colour and movement of modern avian relatives, to reconstruct a scene set in ancient Naracoorte.

skip past newsletter promotion

The researchers included his work in the journal article.

Barrie added details from other animals and plants that were likely to have been in the area at the time.

“There’s a Diprotodon in the centre, being worked at by rip-tearing birds of prey. So you’ve got the ribs exposed, the guts everywhere, it’s a bit gory,” he said.

“The vulture was a much more picky feeder [than the eagle]. They would move in and pick every bit of flesh off the carcasses. But when the big guys were there they didn’t go close. The little guys waited for their opportunity.”

Other animals in the painting include crows, a Tasmanian devil, and a lizard, while other features show what would have been a drier climate.

“There’s a waterhole, a lagoon that’s dried up with a bird running across leaving footprints; there’s bracken underneath a dying tree,” he said.

“There are probably 50 different species of plants I could name that I used.”

Australia’s megafauna, which included Diprotodon and giant goannas and kangaroos, still roamed the country 40,000 years ago, before environmental changes made them extinct. The Flinders University researchers found the megafauna’s extinction could have, in turn, played a role in the end of the vulture and the eagles.


This website uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you accept our use of cookies.