The unique remains of a prehistoric marsupial, giant, similar to a wombat that were unearthed in the central australia They are so different from all other previously known extinct animals that it has been placed in a completely new family of marsupials.
The finding is described in an article published in Scientific Reports by an international team of paleontologists that includes researchers from UNSW Sydney, the Salford University in the UK the Griffith University in Brisbane, the London Natural History Museum and the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
The researchers reveal that the partial skull and most of the skeleton originally discovered in 1973 belonged to an animal more than four times the size of any wombat alive today and may have weighed about 150 kilos. This newly discovered animal was baptized with the name of ‘Mukupirna nambensis’.
An analysis of the evolutionary relationships of ‘Mukupirna’ It reveals that although it was more closely related to wombats, it is as different from all known wombats as it is from other marsupials, that it had to locate itself in its own unique family, ‘Mukupirnidae’.
UNSW science professor Mike Archer, co-author of the paper, was part of the original international team of paleontologists along with Professor Dick Tedford, another co-author, who found the skeleton in 1973 on the clay soil of Lake Pinpa, a remote dry salt lake east of the Flinders mountain range in South Australia.
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He and his team found skulls, teeth, bones and, in some cases, articulated skeletons of many new and exotic types of mammals, he explains. In addition, there were the teeth of extinct lung fish, skeletons of bony fish, and bones of many types of waterfowl, including flamingos and ducks.
“These animals ranged from small mouse-sized carnivorous marsupials to ‘Mukupirna’, which was similar in size to a live black bear,” he summarizes. “It was an incredibly rich fossil deposit full of extinct animals that we had never seen before,” he adds.
A PEACEFUL GIANT
The recent study by researchers on the skull and partial skeleton of ‘Mukurpina’ reveals that despite its bear sizeit was probably a gentle giant. Its teeth indicate that it subsisted only on plants, while its powerful limbs suggest that it was probably a strong digger. However, a close examination of its characteristics revealed that the creature was more suitable for dig from scratch, and unlikely to have been a true excavator like modern wombats, the authors say.
The lead author of the article, Dr. Robin Beck of the University of Salford, says that ‘Mukupirna’ is one of the best preserved marsupials that emerged from the late Oligocene in Australia (about 25 million years ago).
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“Mukupirna was clearly an impressive and powerful beast, at least three times larger than modern wombats,” says Beck, who suggests that he probably lived in an open forest environment with no grass, and developed teeth that would have allowed him to feed on sedges, roots and tubers that it could have dug with its powerful front legs.
According to the associate professor of the Griffith UniversityJulien Louys, co-author of the study, “The description of this new family adds a huge new piece to the puzzle about the diversity of ancient and often very strange marsupials that preceded those who rule the continent today.”
Scientists examined how the body size in vomiting marsupials, the taxonomic group that includes ‘Mukupirna’, wombats, koalas and their fossil relatives, and showed that body weights of 100 kilos or more have evolved at least six times in the last 25 million years. The largest known vombatiform marsupial was the relatively recent ‘Diprotodon’, which it weighed more than 2 tons and survived until at least 50 thousand years ago.
“Koalas and wombats are amazing animals, but animals like ‘Mukupirna’ show that their extinct relatives were even more extraordinary, and many of them were giants,” says Dr. Beck.