New Clues May Explain Why This Fearsome Marsupial Lion Disappeared From Australia

New Clues May Explain Why This Fearsome Marsupial Lion Disappeared From Australia

New research suggests it was climate change—not human activity—that caused Thylacoleo carnifex, an Australian marsupial lion, to go extinct.

For millions of years, Thylacoleo carnifex ruled the forests of Australia, but this predatory species disappeared around 35,000 to 45,000 years ago. Humans first appeared in Australia around 60,000 years ago, leading scientists to wonder if humans were somehow responsible—not an outrageous suggestion, given our dubious track record on such matters.

New research led by paleontologist Larisa DeSantis from Vanderbilt University, with help from her colleagues at the University of New South Wales and University of Queensland, suggests these marsupial lions lost their habitat on account of climate change (the natural kind—not the human-induced version we’re witnessing today), leading to its eventual extinction. Humans, according to this research, had nothing to do with it. For once.

Thylacoleo is the largest carnivorous Australian mammal known, reigning as one of Australia’s most fearsome predators for 2 million years. These creatures were slightly bigger than modern leopards, but smaller than today’s African lions. Their jaws packed a tremendous punch, producing some of the strongest bite forces ever documented in a mammal.

DeSantis and her colleagues were able to show that Thylacoleo was an exclusive forest dweller, and not accustomed to open habitats, a conclusion reached by applying two different methods.

“Stable isotopes told us that Thylacoleo ate prey that resides in forests,” DeSantis explained to Gizmodo, while a 3D dental analysis of wear-and-tear on this creature’s teeth pointed to the same conclusion. “We determined,” she said, “that Thylacoleo was highly specialized on prey from forested environments and this would’ve made it more vulnerable to extinction with the long-term pattern of aridification that begin around 350,000 years ago.” These findings were presented by DeSantis and her colleagues at a recent meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, and a formal science paper is forthcoming.

“This research helps demonstrate that even the fiercest predators can succumb to climate change.”

In addition to the chemical and dental analyses, a review of this animal’s physical characteristics suggests it was an ambush hunter, capable of launching itself at unsuspecting prey at close distances. Thylacoleo, the researchers say, was not built to chase speedy prey across vast, open landscapes.

As DeSantis pointed out, Australia began drying out some 350,000 years ago, a process that turned lush forests into open savanna. Thylacoleo, being highly adapted to forests, simply could not adjust to the loss of its habitat, becoming less effective at hunting over time. “This research,” she said, “helps demonstrate that even the fiercest predators can succumb to climate change.”


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