Giant wombat skeleton unearthed in Australia
Discovery could lead scientists to explain how the giant marsupial became extinct.
Wed, Jul 06, 2011 at 11:41 AM
WHAT BIG TEETH YOU HAVE: The skull of a diprotodon, clearly showing the large front teeth for which the genus is named, at the Melbourne Museum. (Photo: jjron/Wikipedia)
Scientists in Australia have made one of the most important fossil discoveries in the continent's history: a virtually complete skeleton of a diprotodon, the largest marsupial that ever lived.
Measuring more than 6 feet tall, 11 feet long and weighing 3 tons, the wombat-like creature was a monstrous, plant-eating marsupial that lived between 2 million and 50,000 years ago.
Diprotodons were relatives of modern-day wombats, and paleontologists believe this discovery could shed some light on why the species died out. It was one of many so-called "megafauna" that died out in Australia long ago, along with supersized kangaroos and giant crocodiles, mirroring a similar die-off in the Americas. The mass extinctions in both parts of the world have been blamed both on climate change and on overhunting by humans, and scientists hope the diprotodon can offer some insight on what killed off these gigantic herbivores.
"What we're seeing here is the biggest marsupial that ever lived in the world; a three-ton monster that was walking around this land somewhere between 50,000 and 2 million years ago," paleontologist Michael Archer tells ABC Brisbane. "And this was its last stand."
"There's been a lot of debate about what killed the megafauna, and it's quite a hot topic in paleontology," Sue Hand, a professor on the team that made the discovery, tells the AFP. "It will be very interesting to see its age and if people came in first, for instance, from the north. There could be some very interesting data to be extracted from this find."
This article appeared in today's Daily Briefing.