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Magnificent Mihirungs: The Colossal Flightless Birds of the Australian Dreamtime

Magnificent Mihirungs: The Colossal Flightless Birds of the Australian Dreamtime

by Peter F. Murray

Over millions of years, Australia’s unique biodiversity has produced a large cabinet of curiosities. Among the weirder members of this group were the Mihirungs, members of the now extinct family Dromornithidae. Made up of several genera of flightless birds—among them one of the very largest birds that ever lived—the dromornithids ranged from


Over millions of years, Australia’s unique biodiversity has produced a large cabinet of curiosities. Among the weirder members of this group were the Mihirungs, members of the now extinct family Dromornithidae. Made up of several genera of flightless birds—among them one of the very largest birds that ever lived—the dromornithids ranged from 60-kilogram beasts, 1.5 meters tall, to giants twice that size, weighing nearly half a metric ton. They were, by orders of magnitude, the largest "geese" that ever lived. One species was comparable in size to the Ele-phantbird of Madagascar and the Giant Moa of New Zealand. This book is the first major study of this unique and highly diverse group. It aims to present as complete a synthesis as possible of current information about this fascinating family of birds.

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Indiana University Press
Publication date:
Life of the Past Series
Product dimensions:
7.00(w) x 10.00(h) x 1.14(d)

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Magnificent Mihirungs

The Colossal Flightless Birds of the Australian Dreamtime

By Peter F. Murray, Patricia Vickers-Rich

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2004 Peter F. Murray and Patricia Vickers-Rich
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-34282-9


The Discovery of the Dromornithids

Early Discoveries in the Wellington Valley

Bones of dromornithids have been known for some time in Australia. An early expedition into the interior of what is now New South Wales in the 1830s by Major T. L. Mitchell (Mitchell 1839) (Fig. 1) recovered the first specimen that can almost without doubt be referred to this family. As the story goes, a local pastoralist, a Mr. Ranken, with a penchant for fossil collecting, helped Mitchell explore the Wellington Caves (Fig. 2) in the area around his property. Fie let himself down into one of the caverns by rope, and on the way down, unfortunately for him but fortunately for paleontology, he tied his rope onto a projection from the side of the cavern and began his descent — but the fragment (Fig. 2) gave way, and he fell a short distance, taking the projection with him. Evidently the fragment was duly collected and later studied by the famous British anatomist Sir Richard Owen (Fig. 3) and figured in Mitchell's book on this and several more of his expeditions (Mitchell 1839). Although the illustration shows only two views of this large femur (about 18 inches or 460 mm in length), it appears to be avian and most likely a dromornithid, as suggested by size alone. According to a letter Owen wrote to Mitchell (Mitchell 1839, 365), the bone had been deposited in the Museum of the Geological Society, but at the time that Rich (1979) wrote her monograph on the dromornithids, the bone was no longer locatable, and it was suggested that the bone, along with many other paleontological specimens, had evidently been destroyed during the bombing of London in World War II.

Aboriginal Oral Tradition and Dromornithids

The first known reference to dromornithids, however, probably lies in the oral traditions of Aboriginal peoples. Tindale (1951) and Hall, McGowan, and Guleksen (1951) noted stories told by members of the Tjapwurong tribe in western Victoria concerning "mihirung paringmal," or giant emus (and the basis on which Rich named these birds Mihirungs in 1979) that supposedly lived "long ago when the volcanic hills [of the Western District of Victoria] were in a state of eruption." Some lava flows in this area are as young as 1400 years before present (Gill 1972; Blackburn, Allison, and Leaney 1982). Whether the traditions are based on actual contact with living animals or are based on bones found preserved around local waterholes and swamps is difficult to substantiate.

In a far north Queensland cave Percy Tresize (1971; Vickers-Rich, Rich, and Rich 1996) has recorded an ochre painting of a giant bird (Fig. 4) along a wall that clearly has smaller, Emu-sized figures. This may be the artist's imagination or a drawing of a real bird — again either known from direct contact or only from fossil bones and the oral traditions that might have come from the observation of such giant bird bones. Still another possible record are rock carvings (Fig. 5) at Mootwingee north of Broken Hill, New South Wales, where the footprints of giant birds lie alongside those of Emu-sized prints. The fact remains that the youngest dates for dromornithid survival do overlap with Aboriginal occupation of Australia, so these big birds and humans did overlap in time and geography over several thousand years. Just what their direct interactions were is speculative at the moment.

Lake Callabonna: The First and Rare Articulated Dromornithids

The first convincing evidence of dromornithids as unique birds was the spectacular discovery in 1892 of whole skeletons of one species, Genyornis newtoni, in the playa lake sediments of Lake Callabonna in northeastern South Australia (Fig. 6). An Aboriginal stockman (some say his name was Jackie Nolan) was the first to discover fossil bones at Lake Callabonna, and he reported the finding to Mr. F. B. Ragless. Ragless was prone to tell stories around the campfire to anyone who would listen about all sorts of animals, like elephants and beasts from many parts of the world. Probably it was these tales that led Jackie to tell Ragless of the big bones he had found out on the flats of the desolate Lake Callabonna — larger than anything he had ever seen in all his experience as a stockman and a man of the bush.

Two days after Jackie's report, Ragless visited the site and confirmed that indeed big bones were exposed. A few days later the station cook also visited the site. Knowing a reward had been posted for the finding and recovery of the feet of the giant marsupial Diprotodon (Fig. 7), he commandeered a wagon and took some of the bones to Adelaide hoping to claim his reward. Ironically it was Sir Richard Owen offering the reward — he being the first to have a dromornithid bone figure in Major Mitchell's work of 1839. But, from the beginning, it was not clear who should receive the reward, and it never was paid!

At this point, in January 1893, the South Australian Museum dispatched Mr. H. Hurst to investigate the discovery at Lake Callabonna at an unfortunate time of the year — the height of the Australian summer. After working there for four months, Hurst returned with a considerable amount of material in his "buck-board buggy" (Stirling and Zietz 1900). It was this material that led A. Newton to announce, in Nature in April 1893, the presence of a "large Struthius bird."

After looking over the material Hurst had brought back, Stirling (then director of the South Australian Museum) and Zietz (assistant director of the same institution) decided to return to Callabonna themselves in August 1893. Upon their arrival at the lake, Hurst resigned his appointment. Stirling and Zietz continued their work at Callabonna into the summer, where temperatures could rise above 40 degrees C. Field conditions in their camp were appalling: camels, the baggage animals they had brought along, became bogged in the often sodden ground around the natural springs; collecting enough firewood to cook meals was difficult in this desolate country; and a rabbit plague was raging, with the carcasses of dead animals giving off a terrible stench in the camp. Many diggers simply fell ill as a result of the bad conditions.

Despite all the adversity, they collected a significant amount of Genyornis material (Fig. 8), partially articulated and associated, along with several Diprotodon skeletons, including articulated foot material, and this they brought home to become a permanent part of the South Australian Museum collections in Adelaide. Specimens in this collection included two partial skulls of dromornithids (Stirling and Zietz 1913). These remained the only skull material known for quite some time, but they did not provide sufficient information to conclusively resolve the true relationships of the dromornithids to other birds until additional material was found in the mid-twentieth century.

Stirling and Zietz (Fig. 9) were not simply field collectors; still they returned with their articulated booty and set about describing and illustrating their material. They produced a beautiful series of large-formatted, well-illustrated monographs on a variety of the Callabonna vertebrates (Stirling and Zietz 1896, 1900, 1905, 1913). Sir Richard Owen, who had toiled so long and hard on understanding Diprotodon and other Australian fauna, died in 1892, the very year that the bones were discovered at Lake Callabonna, never having known what the feet of his treasured Diprotodon looked like nor having the chance to study the partially articulated skeletons of the dromornithids that had lived there. Callabonna held many of the answers to questions he had long contemplated.

The papers Stirling and Zietz published reported on all the dromornithid material collected during their 1893 expeditions: six femora, twenty-one tibiotarsi-tarsometatarsi feet, one sternum, a partial skull with lower jaw and a second lower jaw, one complete wing and fragments of several others, two sets of caudal vertebrae, parts of three synsacra, and several isolated vertebrae. Some elements were associated, but most of the associations have been lost over the years. Thus, further recovery of partially or completely associated individuals would be an important addition to the present information available on the dromornithid skeleton.

No significant additional work was carried out at Lake Callabonna after the South Australian Museum expedition in the late nineteenth century until Ruben Arthur Stirton and his colleagues (Fig. 10) from the University of California, Berkeley (Museum of Paleontology), returned there in the 1950s. Their collections mainly emphasized the marsupial fauna, Diprotodon in particular, but some dromornithid material was recovered as well.

In 1970 a joint expedition from the American Museum of Natural History (New York), the Smithsonian Institution (Washington, D.C.), and the South Australian Museum spent three months excavating during the austral winter. A large sample of Genyornis was recovered, including a number of elements that had not been well preserved or were even absent in the early South Australian Museum collections. The National Museum of Victoria, Monash University, and the Australian Army mounted a further short expedition to Lake Callabonna in the early 1980s, but only a few dromornithid fragments were recovered, Diprotodon again being the most abundant material. Thus, Callabonna still retains its secrets — and persists as the most likely place for the recovery of articulated dromornithid remains — but a sufficient drought will be needed for skeletons of this somewhat smaller fragile bird to be exposed well.

Other Nineteenth-Century Discoveries

Etheridge (1889) and Stirling and Zietz (1900) have provided detailed accounts of Mitchell's discovery, as well as all the discoveries made as late as 1900. The following account of that period is therefore brief.

No further additions to Mitchell's discovery were made until the Reverend J. E. T. Woods (Fig. 11) discovered and excavated "two tibias and two tarso-metatarsal bones of some extinct and very large bird" on 25 April 1866. In his first report on these bones, Woods noted that they had been found in sinking a well on the edge of a swamp fourteen miles north-northwest of Penóla (Woods 1866, 7). He further recorded that the giant bird seemed to have been contemporaneous with the natives, for the bones he studied were marked with old scars, and one he felt must certainly have been inflicted by an instrument sharper than any possessed by the local Aboriginal peoples living at the time of Woods. He also noted that fragments of flint were buried alongside the bones and that a native well was located about fifty yards away from where the bones were found. Woods proposed the name Dromaius australis for the bones, but he neither figured the specimens nor sufficiently diagnosed or described the new bird to validate the name properly. The name is therefore considered a nomen nudum (a name with no scientific standing).

In a later paper Woods (1882) further observed that these avian bones had been found in one of the kitchen-middens of South Australian natives. Quite surprisingly, Etheridge (1889) did not include Woods's discovery in his summary of the previous work on dromornithids. Stirling and Zietz (1900) implied that Woods's descriptions of the locations of the Penóla dromornithid remains contained a number of contradictions, but Rich (1979) did not find the descriptions contradictory as the bones could have been found in sinking a well, near a native well, and in a native midden. Unfortunately these specimens, which could have provided the only convincing direct support for a temporal overlap or interaction between Aboriginal people and the dromornithids, could not be located when Stirling and Zietz sought to find them in the early twentieth century, and they are still at large, despite a recent intensive search for them in the Penóla Institute, the major Australian museums, the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, the British Museum of Natural History, and at Murndel Station in the Western District of Victoria, all places where the specimens Woods studied were deposited or where he visited frequently during his tenure as a Catholic priest based in Adelaide.

Somewhat later, in 1869, the Reverend W. B. Clarke, government geologist for the Province of New South Wales, reported that a large bird had been recovered from a well dug in the Peak Downs of Queensland between Lord's Table Mountain and the head of Thesa Creek, near the track from Clermont to Broad Sound. Based on Clark's description, the femur (Australian Museum #F10950) apparently came from a depth of 180 feet or 55 meters from a stratum of "drift [stream] pebbles and boulders." Clarke and Gerard Krefft, curator at the Australian Museum, concluded that the femur was closely allied to that of the New Zealand moa genus Dinornis. Sir Richard Owen, however, prepared a memoir in 1872 describing Clarke's femur in detail based on a cast and photographs sent to him (Owen 1874), designating it a new genus and species, Dromornis australis. Owen's paper was mentioned briefly in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London in 1872, but his text was not actually published until 1874 in that same society's Transactions. Owen pointed out characteristics clearly distinguishing the Peak Downs femur from that of Dinornis and closely allied it with the living Emu and cassowaries.

In 1876–77 Clarke sent Owen a fragmentary synsacrum (now in the British Museum of Natural History #49160) of yet another large bird, which a Mr. Dietz had recovered during mining activities at a depth of two hundred feet (sixty-one meters) in the Canadian Deep Lead Mine near Mudgee-Gulgong mining district of New South Wales. The specimen, along with the "lower portion of a tibia found in the cave in the Gambier Range" (Clarke 1877; Stirling and Zietz 1900) of South Australia, was later described by Owen (1879b). Owen suggested that both the synsacrum and the tibia were from birds about the same size and similar to that producing the type of femur of Dromornis australis. The synsacrum is so fragmentary that it could be identified no more precisely than Dromornithidae. A femur fragment from the Canadian Lead (British Museum of Natural History #49160a) is dromornithid but not Genyornis, which was so plentiful at Lake Callabonna. The Mount Gambier tibiotarsal fragment, however, might well belong to that genus, as Stirling and Zietz suggested when first describing Genyornis newtoni. After the Canadian Lead and Gulgong discoveries, a few other fragmentary bones that could be assigned to the Dromornithidae continued to be found. R. M. Robertson, for instance, discovered a number of fragmentary hindlimb bones of a dromornithid (South Australian Museum #17098–17100C), probably Genyornis newtoni, in the streambed of Salt Creek near Normanville, South Australia. This material was deposited in the South Australian Museum and was never described or measured, being mentioned only briefly in Stirling and Zietz (1900).

In 1884 Charles DeVis, a paleontologist associated with the Queensland Museum (DeVis 1884, 1891), described a fragmentary femur that a Mr. J. Daniels, supposedly from King's Creek in the Darling Downs of Queensland, had presented to the Queensland Museum. DeVis called this Dinornis, thus suggesting that it was closely related to the New Zealand moa genus. Ron Scarlett (1969), then curator of birds at the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch and noted moa expert, correctly pointed out, however, that the preservation of this bone, supposedly collected in Queensland, was radically different from that of any other fossils collected along King's Creek. He further noted that the fragment had a similar preservation style to material from localities on the South Island of New Zealand and was, in fact, morphologically indistinguishable from the endemic New Zealand moa, Pachyornis elephantopus, known only from the South Island. How the specimen reached Australia and Mr. Daniels remains an intriguing mystery.


Excerpted from Magnificent Mihirungs by Peter F. Murray, Patricia Vickers-Rich. Copyright © 2004 Peter F. Murray and Patricia Vickers-Rich. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Peter F. Murray is a researcher at the Museum of Central Australia in Alice Springs.

Patricia Vickers-Rich holds a Chair in Palaeontology at Monash University, where she lectures in the Earth Sciences Department. She is co-author (with Thomas H. Rich) of Wildlife of Gondwana: Dinosaurs and Other Vertebrates from the Ancient Supercontinent (IUP, 2000) and Dinosaurs of Darkness (IUP, 2000).

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