Researchers have recently discovered a new member of the now-extinct Thylacoleonidae marsupial lion family. Living during the Pleistocene epoch in Australia, the species is a close relative of and slightly smaller than Thylacoleo carnifex. Weighing only around 600 gm, the carnivorous creature was identified through fossil specimens by a team of paleontologists from the University of New South Wales.
Referred to as a “micro-lion” because of its unusually small size, the ancient animal is of special interest to researchers, especially since its successful cohabitation with its larger relatives likely points to certain unique features and abilities. Despite its name, these creatures are not lions in any shape or form. Belonging to the Diprotodontia order, marsupial lions possessed powerful retractable claws that in turn enabled them to swiftly climb trees to capture their prey.
To this day, they remain the largest carnivorous mammals to have ever inhabited Australia, in addition to being one of the largest meat-eating marsupials in the entire world. The newly-discovered creature is called Microleo attenboroughi, after Sir David Attenborough, the famous 90-year-old naturalist who rallied for the protection of the Riversleigh World Heritage Area. Located in the northwestern part of Queensland, the region housed the fossilized remains of the new marsupial lion species. Speaking about the incredible find, Anne Gillespie, the study’s lead author, said:
Microleo attenboroughi would have been more like the cute, but still feisty kitten of the family. It was not lion-size or even bob-cat-size. Weighing only about 600 grams, it was more like a ringtail possum in size.
The fossils, the team believes, are nearly 19 million years old, dating back to the Miocene epoch. At the time, the animal probably lived among trees in rainforests, hunting still smaller creatures for food. As pointed out by the researchers, the fossil remains contained sections of the lion’s teeth as well as skull, which in turn helped them identify it as a member of the Thylacoleonidae family.
The fossils were discovered during excavation works at Neville’s Garden Site, as part of an expedition that led to the unearthing of several thousand prehistoric bone and teeth fragments belonging to a variety of organisms, including lizards, bats and even turtles. During its lifetime, the M. attenboroughi coexisted in the northern rainforests with two other larger marsupial lion species.
For its survival, this ancient mammal preyed on smaller vertebrates. Given its tiny size, however, it is highly likely that the creature had to at times compete with its larger relatives for food. At present, the team is trying to uncover more fossil samples that could help enhance our understanding of the animal’s physical features as well as way of life. Mike Archer, one of the paper’s co-author, added:
Tantalizing questions about the rest of its skull and skeleton which could further clarify aspects of its lifestyle – such as whether it had an enlarged ‘killing’ thumb claw like its Pleistocene relative – must await discovery of more complete specimens.
The research was recently published in the Palaeontologia Electronica journal.
Source: University of New South Wales