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Marsupial Lions Were Similar to Tassie Devil

New research into the first complete skeleton of an extinct marsupial lion provides extraordinary insights into its hunting ability, social traits, and similarities with the iconic Tasmanian devil.

Flinders University researchers set out to analyse the skeleton of Thylacoleo carnifex after new remains were discovered, including the only known complete skeleton, in caves in Naracoorte and the Nullarbor Plain. Their findings, published in PLOS ONE (https://goo.gl/JDARhm), confirm that Thylacoleo was a skilled climber, whether moving through the tree canopy or through caves, despite weighing more than 100 kg. Its heavy, muscular tail would have helped it balance, and would have freed its forelimbs to capture prey and manipulate food.

The researchers also concluded that the anatomy of the marsupial lion is most similar to the Tasmanian devil, which is the largest marsupial carnivore still living in Australia today .

“These recent fossil discoveries in South Australian caves enabled us to finally assemble a complete skeleton of the marsupial lion, including the tail and collar bone, for the first time ever,” says study author Prof Rod Wells. “We concluded that the marsupial lion was a stealth or ambush predator of larger prey, a niche not dissimilar to that of the Tasmanian devil, which feeds on smaller prey in comparison.”

The extinction of Australia’s largest marsupial predator has intrigued palaeontologists who have tried to determine Thylacoleo’s lifestyle since it was first described using incomplete skull and jaw fragments in 1859. Recent fossil discoveries included the first known remains of the tail and collarbone, and the authors compared its anatomy to living marsupials. “Our

analysis of the tail suggests that it was held up in the air, and that it was being used in a way that differs from all living marsupials,” says co-author Dr Aaron Camens.

The researchers haven’t determined whether Thylacoleo was a cooperative hunter or simply an opportunist, but since multiple adults and young were found in caves they seem to have operated in social groups.

For millions of years, Thylacoleo was Australia’s largest and most ferocious mammalian predator, using its climbing ability to ambush prey until the megafauna disappeared around 40,000 years ago. “Examining the whole skeleton reveals what a truly unique animal Thylacoleo was. It looked like a cross between a possum and a wombat, climbed a bit like a koala, and moved with the stiff-backed gait of a Tasmanian devil, all whilst filling a niche different to any other animal on Earth.”