It’s been 30,000 years since the last of the marsupial lions prowled for prey in Australia, but scientists continue to discover new species of the largest meat-eating mammals that ever lived on the continent.
The latest family member is Wakaleo schouteni, whose fossils — including a well-preserved skull, jaws and upper arm bones — were found in the Riversleigh World Heritage Area in northwest Queensland.
The fearsome predator weighed about 50 pounds and was about the size of a Collie dog, according to Anna Gillespie of the University of New South Wales Sydney, one of Australia’s leading research and teaching universities.
Gillespie, a technical researcher for the team of scientists that identified the new species, wrote about their discovery in The Conversation, an academic and research news journal.
“‘Marsupial lions,’ also known as thylacoleonids, are an extinct family of marsupials that were present in Australia from about 24 million years ago up until the end of the Pleistocene era, about 30,000 years ago,” Gillespie wrote.
“Their distinguishing feature is the presence of lengthened premolar teeth that form a pair of secateur-like blades. This feature — massively developed in the most recent member of the family, Thylacoleo carnifex — led to them being named a ‘marsupial lion’ by the 19th century palaeontologist Sir Richard Owen.
“At present, the thylacoleonid family contains nine species, five of which belong to the genus Wakaleo.”
In addition to their powerful jaws and forelimbs, Marsupial lions had retractable claws, a unique trait among marsupials that enabled them to secure their prey and to climb trees.
Unlike most of today’s marsupials, which include kangaroos and koalas, marsupial lions had large upper and lower incisors, similar to the pointed canine teeth of dogs and cats. They also had exceptionally large jaws, giving them the most powerful bite, adjusted for size, of any animal that ever lived on earth — as powerful as lions twice their size.
Gillespie and colleagues Michael Archer and Suzanne J. Hand have written a detailed study of their discovery in the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology.