Australia, the bastion of strange and unique wildlife, has preserved such a host of oddities because of its isolation. In the past, even stranger animals could have been found, from giant wombats to twenty-foot-long monitor lizards, as well as titanic kangaroos, enormous pythons, and marsupial lions. Perhaps among the strangest of Australian’s extinct megafauna were a group of birds called dromornithids, also known as the mihirungs or, due to their size and their relation to waterfowl, the “demon ducks of doom.”
The dromornithids were a staple in the late Cenozoic, and survived until very recently in geologic time. The first humans to reach Australia would have encountered at least a couple of species, including Genyornis newtoni, a 500 kg (1100 lbs) behemoth of a bird. Bullockornis planei, another mihirung, was a stocky, thick-billed animal that lived during the Miocene, making it among the oldest known dromornithids.
One fossil dromornithid, however, places the origins of the lineage even farther back. Dromornis murrayi lived during the late Oligocene, around 26 million years ago. Even the early members of the dromornithids, such as D. murrayi, appear to have been flightless, with greatly reduced wings in addition to their size – this early species was “only” 250 kg (550 lbs), about half the size of the largest known dromornithids.