Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Ancient Koala Named after Philanthropist

By Stephen Luntz

A newly discovered species of extinct koala has been named after businessman and philanthropist Dick Smith.

There are now18 known extinct species of koala, most of which flourished in the rainforests of northern Australia until the continent dried out 15 million years ago. Some species survived until 350,000 years ago.

Litokoala dicksmithi has been identified from a single 20-million-year-old fossil found at Riversleigh and described in the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology.

“The discovery of Litokoala dicksmithi is particularly significant because it is one of only two fossil koala species that are known from material preserving the facial region, including the snout,” says Dr Karen Black of the University of NSW. Moreover, L. dicksmithi has a skull that more closely resembles modern koalas than the more possum-like face of the other well-preserved koala skull.

The extinction of so many koala species was a major loss to the tourist industry. Known examples ranged from one-third of the size of modern koalas to 20–30% larger, with L. dicksmithi at the bottom of the range. It might, however, have been hard to spot.

“An interesting feature of the Litokoala skull is the extremely large eye sockets, which suggest the intriguing possibility that these koalas were nocturnal with greater visual acuity than the living koala,” says Black. She suggests the visual capacity might have evolved to support a more active lifestyle, with it needing to be able to spot food while moving at speed.

L. dicksmithi would have fed on more nutritious rainforest leaves, rather than eucalypts, and may have supplemented its diet with fruit like modern possums.

Black says the name was chosen to “thank Mr Smith for his long-term financial support of Australian science, in particular of fossil research at the Riversleigh World Heritage Area in north-western Queensland.”