Diprotodon – A Monster Marsupial

A set of fossilised giant Wombat bones found at Burketown in north-west Queensland are getting Australian palaeontologists hopping with excitement as they could represent the most complete fossil skeleton of a Diprotodontid ever found, beating a 33,000 year old specimen found near Sydney back in 1979.

By the Late Eocene Epoch, Australia had become completely isolated from the rest of the world, finally having split from Antarctica with the forming of the Southeast Indian Ridge.  This ridge opened up a seaway between these two landmasses and Australia was separated, breaking up the last remnants of the super-continent known as Gondwanaland.  Australia began to move north as the seaway expanded, a journey the country is still on, one day it will bash into south east Asia but for the moment this huge area of land, with all its strange fauna and flora are very much on their own.

Fifty-five million years ago, back in the Eocene Epoch this isolated part of the world, complete with its primitive mammals, in particular the marsupials, took a very different evolutionary path compared to the rest of the world, where placental mammals tended to dominate.  Australian marsupials flourished, as indeed they do today and if you think that Kangaroos and Koalas are strange beasts then the animals that dominated prehistoric Australia are in another league.  It is the remains of one such strange prehistoric beast, perhaps the largest marsupial that ever lived that has got Australian scientists so excited.

Scientists are hoping to piece together the world’s most complete Diprotodon skeleton ever sourced from a single specimen.  Diprotodontids were a diverse group of quadrupedal, herbivorous marsupials some of which grew to enormous sizes.  Diprotodon for example, grew to the size of a modern day hippo and would have tipped the scales at around 3,000 kilogrammes.

Professor Michael Archer, of the University of New South Wales commented:

“What we’re seeing here is the biggest marsupial that ever lived in the world – a three-tonne monster that was walking around this land somewhere between 50,000 and two million years ago.  This was its last stand.”

Professor Archer says it is unusual for all the creature’s bones to be found in one place, most large animals would have been scavenged by Thylacines and leopard sized marsupial lions but although dis-articulated the scientists are hopeful that the complete skeleton can be found.

A Reconstruction of the Giant Marsupial Diprotodon

Picture Credit: Australian Museum/James King

Professor Archer added:

“All the bones are not necessarily in their right position but probably the whole skeleton of this giant is in this one spot where it fell maybe 50,000 years ago.”

Scientists are hoping to piece together the world’s most complete Diprotodon skeleton ever sourced from a single specimen.  Australian palaeontologists have benefitted from the remarkable fossil bearing rocks to be found at another remote location in Queensland – Riversleigh.  Fossils found at this location date from the Miocene Epoch to the Late Pleistocene and document the bizarre fauna that existed in lush, lowland rain forests up to around 20,000 years ago.

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