May 26, 2024

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AI provides a new tool for studying extinct species from 50,000 years ago

Researchers Beatrice Demarchi from the University of Turin, Josefin Stiller from the University of Copenhagen, and Matthew Collins from the University of Cambridge and University of Copenhagen share their AlphaFold story.

Could burn marks on ancient eggshells explain the disappearance of the giant flightless bird Genyornis newtoni? This ostrich-sized “thunderbird”, dubbed “the demon-duck of doom” for its huge head, disappeared from Australia’s fossil record about 50,000 years ago. The discovery of burned eggshells led scientists, including a team of scientists led by Gifford Miller at the University of Colorado Boulder, to propose that their extinction was caused by early humans eating their eggs.

But the evidence was not clear cut. The burned eggshells seemed too thin to come from such a large bird. Were they not from something much smaller, more the size of a large turkey?

To determine whether Genyornis became extinct through human intervention, scientists needed to prove that the burnt shell fragments were indeed from eggs laid by Genyornis. That led to a new problem. The DNA in these eggshells had perished during their 50,000 years in the hot sands of the Australian desert. The researchers turned instead to proteins and artificial intelligence to help fill in the gaps.

It took a genuinely multidisciplinary team including specialists in the proteins in ancient fossils , bird genetics, archaeology and more to crack the eggshell code and find out what led to the demise of the thunderbird. Spoiler alert: the evidence suggests these evidently tasty large eggs were indeed those of Genyornis.

Read the full paper by Beatrice, Josefin, Matthew and colleagues in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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