Climate Change Played Major Role in Demise of Marsupial Lion

New evidence indicates the primary cause of the extinction of one of Australia’s top predators, the marsupial lion (Thylacoleo carnifex), around 40,000 years ago was likely a result of changing weather patterns and loss of habitat, not human impacts.

The aridificaiton of Australia impacted the hunting effectiveness or preybase of the marsupial lion (Thylacoleo carnifex) contributing to its extinction. Image credit: Peter Schouten.

The aridificaiton of Australia impacted the hunting effectiveness or preybase of the marsupial lion (Thylacoleo carnifex) contributing to its extinction. Image credit: Peter Schouten.

Vanderbilt University paleontologist Dr. Larisa DeSantis and co-authors addressed the question about the extinction of the marsupial lion by looking into the carnivore’s chemistry.

By studying the chemical signature preserved within fossil teeth, they were able to determine that the animal hunted primarily in forests, rather than open habitats.

This is supported by features of the skeleton that indicate it was an ambush hunter, relying on catching its prey unaware rather than running them down across an open landscape.

“The new data provide evidence that the marsupial lion was an ambush predator and relied on prey that occupied denser cover,” Dr. DeSantis said.

“As the landscape became drier and forests less-dense, these apex predators may have become less-effective hunters and succumbed to extinction.”

“The study of these ancient fossils provides us with cautionary lessons for the future: climate change can impact even the fiercest predators.”

The marsupial lion lived alongside the thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus), which survived until the 20th century.

The preference of the thylacine for prey from more open habitats likely led to its survival, despite having a much weaker bite than the marsupial lion.

“Because of its extraordinarily specialized dentition, the marsupial lion has been declared to be the most specialized mammalian carnivore that ever evolved anywhere in the world,” said Professor Michael Archer, a vertebrate palaeontologist at the University of New South Wales.

“Marsupial lions were far more specialized than African lions. They even had a proportionately larger brain than African lions as well as large, uniquely formidable, large can-opener-like thumb claws.”

“What’s increasingly clear now is that it evidently survived the arrival of humans 60,000 years ago, but apparently not the profound impacts of a rapidly drying climate that undermined the survival of a range of megafaunal mammals in Australia.”

The researchers presented their findings October 18 at the 78th Annual Meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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Larisa DeSantis et al. Aridification as a potential driver of the extinction of the marsupial lion in Australia. SVP 2018

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