Mystery Marsupial

They call it a “marsupial hyena.” A “flesh-eating kangaroo.” A hypercarnivourous beast that could “[slice] up the largest animals of its day.” Sounds like a myth? Weighing approximately 55 lbs, the Whollydooleya tomnpatrichorum, a new extinct species of marsupial that rightfully conforms to these labels, was formally identified this year. With large teeth and a “powerful bite,” it was more than twice the size of the largest marsupial carnivore, the Tasmanian devil.1 2

Prof. Mike Archer, lead author of the Whollydooleya digging project, received support from the ARC funding and National Geographic society, which gave his team the materials needed to start uncovering new extinct species.3 Using a newly designed GPS tracking system invented by Ned Stephens, a PhD student of the University of New South Wales (UNSW), archeologists were able to locate a new digging site in 2012, which they named New Riversleigh. The geology of the area indicated that the fossils soon to be discovered were from the late Miocene period, 12 to 5 million years ago.4

After long exploration of the site, researchers uncovered many different fossils of extinct animals, such as a new species of kangaroo, but the Whollydooleya was the first to be formally identified. In 2013, a molar tooth of the Whollydooleya was uncovered by archeologist Phil Creaser, and afterward, it was researched until scientists agreed that it came from a new species.5

Based on the molar, scientists decided that the Whollydooleya was definitely a carnivore, a hypercarnivore to be specific — an animal that eats more that 75% meat. This can easily be concluded by comparing the molar of the Whollydooleya to the molar of a carnivore and that of an herbivore in the following figure (Figure 1). The molar of a carnivore is sharp and asymmetrical to help rip though skin and flesh, whereas the molar of an herbivore has a relatively flat surface, with deep grooves to help grind plant matter.

 

Sources: Children's Discovery Museum, Blazin-Trailblazer, UNSW
Sources: Children’s Discovery Museum, Blazin-Trailblazer, UNSW

 

By examining the size of the molar, researchers think that the Whollydooleya was an “active predator” closely related to the Tasmanian devil, Thylacine, and Quoll.6 (see Figure 2) The gradual change in aridity of the climate was most likely a “merciless eliminator” of many medium and large marsupials of this time period, including the Whollydooleya.7

 

Sources: Huffington Post
Sources: Huffington Post

 

Because of the extreme aridity of much of ancient Australia — particularly the Pleistocene era — it is very rare to find such well preserved fossils as the ones found in New Riversleigh.8 Researcher Dr. Karen Black explains how these new fossil finds will help scientists understand the environmental shifts in the Miocene and Pleistocene eras, which sheds new light on the extinction of many different species of megafauna in the Pleistocene Ice Ages, such as the Saber-toothed cat and the Wooly Mammoth.9

Works Cited:   [ + ]

1. “Flesh-eating Kangaroo Discovered at Fossil Site in Western Queensland, Australia.” Blasting News. Web. 16 Aug. 2016.
2. “Hyena Meets Tasmanian Devil: Ancient ‘Hypercarnivore’ Unearthed.” LiveScience. TechMedia Network, Web. 16 Aug. 2016
3. University of New South Wales. “New extinct carnivorous marsupial discovered.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 25 July 2016 <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/07/160725104121.htm>.
4. “‘Hypercarnivore’ Relative of Tassie Devil Found in Outback Queensland.” ABC News, 2016. Web. 16 Aug. 2016.
5. University of New South Wales. “New extinct carnivorous marsupial discovered.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 25 July 2016. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/07/160725104121.htm>.
6. “Devil’s Cousin: Carnivore Capable of ‘slicing Up’ Animals 5mn Yrs Ago Identified in Australia.” RT International. 16 Aug. 2016.
7. “Hyena Meets Tasmanian Devil: Ancient ‘Hypercarnivore’ Unearthed.” LiveScience. TechMedia Network, Web. 16 Aug. 2016
8. University of New South Wales. “New extinct carnivorous marsupial discovered.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 25 July 2016 <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/07/160725104121.htm>.
9. “‘Hypercarnivore’ Relative of Tassie Devil Found in Outback Queensland.” ABC News, 2016. Web. 16 Aug. 2016.

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