Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Solving the Mysteries of the Australian Megafauna

Credit: Aaron Camens, Flinders University

A skeleton of Diprotodon, Australia’s largest ever living land mammal, exposed at Lake Callabonna in South Australia. Credit: Aaron Camens, Flinders University

Two new papers have narrowed the date of Australia’s megafauna extinctions as well as the cause of their demise.

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The many kinds of bizarre large land animals that inhabited Australia until around the past 50,000 years are known as the megafauna. These included the largest marsupials, lizards and birds to ever walk the Earth. Diprotodon is the iconic poster boy of the brigade, a wombat -shaped beast the size of a rhino weighing up to 2.7 tonnes that lived right across the mainland. The biggest birds that ever lived were the dromornithids, emu-like flightless bird around 450 kg in weight and 3 metres high, but more closely related to ducks and geese. The king of the post-dinosaurian reptiles was our ancient killer goanna, Varanus (Megalania) prisca, which as perhaps up to 6 metres long and whose closest living kin is the Komodo dragon of Indonesia.

For some time there has been an ongoing debate about what caused the extinction of these marvellous beasts. One theory says it was entirely brought on by climate change, particularly the aridity associated with ice ages. Another theory argues it was the arrival of humans into the country, which resulted in hunting of the animals and changing of their habitat through fire stick farming. A third camp thinks it was a complex scenario that probably involved factors from both sides. In the past couple of months two significant new works have added interesting new information that affects the way we think about the megafauna’s demise....

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.