Thylacoleo carnifex, a Pliocene to Pleistocene marsupial from Australia, based on the skeleton at the Victoria Fossil Cave, pencil drawing, digital coloring, by Nobu Tamura via Wikimedia. Check out his astounding portfolio at Palaeocritti.com
The marsupial lion (Thylacoleo carnifex) is an extinct species of carnivorous marsupial mammal that lived in Australia from the early to the late Pleistocene (1,600,000–46,000 years ago). Despite its name, it is not closely related to the lion, but is a member of the order Diprotodontia.
The marsupial lion is the largest meat-eating mammal known to have ever existed in Australia, and one of the largest marsupial carnivores from anywhere in the world (although see Thylacosmilus and Borhyaena). Individuals ranged up to around 75 cm (30 in) high at the shoulder and about 150 cm (59 in) from head to tail. Measurements taken from a number of specimens show they averaged 100 to 130 kg (220 to 290 lb) in weight although individuals heavier than 160 kg (350 lb) might not have been uncommon. This would make it quite comparable to female lions and tigers in general size.
The animal was extremely robust with powerfully built jaws and very strong fore limbs. It possessed retractable claws, a unique trait among marsupials. This would have allowed the claws to remain sharp by protecting them from being worn down on hard surfaces. The claws were well-suited to securing prey and for climbing trees. The first digits (“thumbs”) on each hand were semiopposable and bore an enlarged claw. Palaeontologists believe this would have been used to grapple its intended prey, as well as providing it with a sure footing on tree trunks and branches.
The marsupial lion was a highly specialised carnivore, as is reflected in its dentition (teeth). Like other diprotodonts, it possessed enlarged incisors on both the upper (maxillae) and lower (mandibles) jaws. These teeth (the lower in particular) were shaped much more like the pointed canine teeth of animals such as dogs and cats than those of kangaroos. The most unusual feature of the creature’s dentition were the huge, blade-like carnassial premolars on either side of its jaws. The top and bottom carnassials worked together like shears and would have been very effective at slicing off chunks of flesh from carcasses and cutting through bone.
Numerous fossil discoveries indicate the marsupial lion was distributed across much of the Australian continent. A large proportion of its environment would have been similar to the southern third of Australia today, semiarid, open scrub and woodland punctuated by waterholes and water courses.
It would have coexisted with many of the so-called Australian megafauna such as the previously mentioned Diprotodon, giant kangaroos, and Megalania, as well as giant wallabies like Protemnodon, the giant wombat Phascolonus, and the thunderbird Genyornis.
Many of these animals would have been prey for adult marsupial lions. The marsupial lion was especially adapted for hunting large animals but was not particularly suited to catching smaller prey. The relatively quick reduction in the numbers of its primary food source around 40,000 to 50,000 years ago probably led to the decline and eventual extinction of the marsupial lion. The arrival of humans in Australia and the use of fire-stick farming precipitated their decline.
The marsupial lion is classified in the order Diprotodontia along with many other well-known marsupials such as kangaroos, possums, and the koala. It is further classified in its own family, the Thylacoleonidae, of which three genera and 11 species are recognised, all extinct. The term marsupial lion (lower case) is often applied to other members of this family. The marsupial lion’s closest living relatives are the herbivorous koala and wombats.
Read some of the earliest attempts at classifying the skeletons of these amazing creatures: On the Affinities of Thylacoleo. Owen, P- Proceedings of the Royal Society of London (1854-1905). 1883-01-01. 35:19–19
- You can read a more modern and succinct description of the Marsupial Lion at The Australian Museum and the Western Australian Musuem.
- You’ll especially enjoy a write-up of the early discussions on marsupial megafauna diet conducted in Victorian England at Wired.
Text via Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thylacoleo_carnifex
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