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New species of extinct marsupial lion discovered in Australia

07 Décembre 2017

Like kangaroos and koalas, this fearsome creature was a marsupial but unlike today's descendent it was a meat-eater, armed with a fearsome set of teeth.

Australian scientists have discovered a new species of marsupial lion which has been extinct for at least 19 million years.

The new discovery, dubbed Wakaleo schouteni, was a meat-eating animal that weighed approximately 23 kilograms (50 pounds), and hunted in the Australian rainforests 18-26 million years ago.

The new species is about a fifth of the weight of the largest and last surviving marsupial lion, Thylacoleo carnifex, which weighed 130 kilograms. These large marsupials existed many million years after the newly discovered, smaller and older marsupial lion. Members of this family, the Thylacoleonidae, had highly distinct large, blade-like, flesh-cutting premolars that they used to tear up prey.

The discovery, published in the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology, comes just a year after the fossilised remains of a kitten-sized marsupial lion were found in the same famous fossil site in Queensland. That one was dubbed Microleo attenboroughi, in honour of Sir David Attenborough, noted broadcaster and frequent narrator for nature documentaries.

The Riversleigh World Heritage Area where the species was found, located about 250 kilometres north-west of Mt Isa in Queensland, contains the remains of ancient mammals, birds and reptiles from the Oligocene (33.9 to 23 million years ago) and Miocene (23 to 5.3 million years ago) epochs.

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Lead author Dr Anna Gillespie says the new species is similar in size to a Border Collie and would have been perfectly adapted to the what is thought to have once been a heavily forested region.

With the new discovery, scientists have now identified two separate marsupial lion species in Australia.

They identified the lion from an nearly complete skull, teeth, and upper arm bones.

The similarities between the new species and Priscileo pitikantensis, specifically the presence of three upper premolars and four molars, prompted the researchers to reclassify P. pitikantensis as a Wakaleo.

The researchers said the dental similarities distinguish W. schouteni and W. pitikantensis from later species of the genus, all of which show premolar and molar reduction, and suggest that they are the most primitive members of the genus.

"The identification of these new species have brought to light a level of marsupial lion diversity that was quite unexpected and suggest even deeper origins for the family", she says.

New species of extinct marsupial lion discovered in Australia