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Ancient Marsupial Lion: Claw Marks Reveal Ferocious Behavior Of Australia's Extinct Predator

Feb 17, 2016 08:04 PM EST
Thylacoleo carnifex
A skeleton of a marsupial lion (Thylacoleo carnifex) in the Naracoorte Caves National Park, South Australia.
(Photo : Wikimedia Commons )

With kangaroos, wallabies, koalas and so many other marsupials, or pouched animals, roaming around Australia, it shouldn't be surprising that there once was a marsupial lion. That sort of creature roamed the Down Under continent about 50,000 years ago, reigning as the top predator for its time in the area. While that was known, the precise behaviors of these animals remained somewhat of a mystery -- until now.

Prehistoric claw marks recently found in a place called Tight Entrance cave on the south-western tip of Australia have provided paleontologists with all the information they need to create a much more detailed profile of the extinct marsupial lion, Thylacoleo carnifex. Most closely related to plant-eaters like possums and wombats, T. carnifex weighed upward of 220 pounds and was equipped with a powerful jaw and large, sharp claws. The animals are thought to have died out about 40,000 years ago, shortly after humans arrived in Australia, according to a news release

In the latest study, Gavin Prideaux and Samuel Arman, researchers from Flinders University in Adelaide, examined hundreds of scratch marks on the cave's walls and identified a large set of marks that were clearly those of the marsupial lion. Ultimately, the markings yielded two key findings: The lions were good climbers and reared young inside the cave. 

Many of the claw marks were gouged into steep surfaces, up to three meters from the cave floor, even though there were paths through the cave with more gradual inclines. "They could have chosen longer routes to the exit with gentler slopes, but the distribution of claw marks shows that, habitually, they did not. Clearly they were excellent climbers and would easily have been able to climb trees," Arman said in the release. 

This, combined with previous bone evidence of the animals' robust build and meat-slicing teeth, suggests T. carnifex was a "stocky-yet-agile predator" that likely climbed trees to hunt and ambush prey. (Scroll to read more...)

Thylacoleo carnifex
(Photo : Wikimedia Commons )
Thylacoleo carnifex reconstruction.

"We assumed that they were at least partly arboreal," Mike Archer, a paleontologist from the University of New South Wales, added. "The hind foot has an opposable first toe, the front arm is grasping and the fore limbs are extremely powerful, which is typical of animals that climb, having to pull their body weight up. And their claws are quite capable of maintaining them in trees."

Of the thousands of claw marks analyzed, researchers found many that varied in size. This led them to believe young spent a lot of time in the caves, perhaps while their parents were out foraging. 

"The largest of the scratch marks could only have been made by adults of T. carnifex. Many of the smaller marks were made by juveniles: they have the same form as that of the adults, but do not match claw marks made by other known cave dwellers," researchers said in the university's release. "Marsupial lions, like all marsupials, would have given birth to extremely underdeveloped young that could not be left alone until becoming at least partially weaned." 

Therefore, caves would have provided necessary protection from predation, as well as a climate-controlled environment. 

Researchers also believe the animals hunted in packs, as they were well-adapted to capturing and consuming large prey. This strategy would have allowed them to prey on Australia's largest marsupial: The rhinoceros-sized Diprotodon optatum, bones of which have been found previously with T. carnifex bite marks.

Their findings were recently published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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