Tiny Relative of Tasmanian Tiger Could Kill Large Animals
Tasmanian tiger's ancient relative called Nimbacinus dicksoni was a puny little animal but could hunt large animals, a new study has found.
The Tasmanian tigers are now extinct with the last member dying in captivity in 1936.
Researchers at University of New England together with colleagues from the University of New South Wales have now found that some of the carnivorous marsupials were tiny, but ferocious killing machines.
The team studied the skull of N dicksoni and found that the animal was tiny and weighed just five kilograms or 11 pounds. But the animal had a high bite force for its size and could hunt animals larger than its size.
"Its face looked like a cross between a cat and an opossum," said study lead author Marie Attard, a zoologist at the University of New England in Australia, according to nbc.news.
Marsupials are found predominantly in Australasia and parts of the New World. A defining feature of these animals is that they carry their young ones in pouches (examples include Kangaroo and the wallaby).
N. dicksoni was a member of a now extinct family of meat-eating marsupials called Thylacinidae. The legendary Tasmanian tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus) also belonged to this family.
According to researchers, hunting drove the Tasmanian tiger to extinction. People believed that Tasmanian tigers killed sheep, nbcnews reported. Earlier studies have shown that the Tasmanian tiger had a small jaw and so couldn't hunt large prey.
The present study analyzed the skull of an important ancient member of the family and found that Thylacinidae members even as small as a fox could kill large animals.
"For at least 15 million years the thylacinids were key players in Australia's carnivorous marsupial community," said Stephen Wroe, one of the researchers.
The study was based on a skull of N. dicksoni found at Riversleigh World Heritage Fossil Site in northwestern Queensland, Australia.
Researchers used virtual 3D reconstruction techniques to study and compare the skull with skull models of other large marsupial carnivores such as the Tasmanian devil, spotted-tailed quoll and northern quoll and even the Tasmanian tiger, which is a close relative of N. dicksoni.
According to the team, N. dicksoni was an opportunistic hunter, meaning that it killed several kinds of animals including birds, snakes and other marsupials, according to a news release.
"While our understanding of thylacinid diversity has greatly improved with new fossil discoveries, our understanding of their ecology has remained limited, in part at least because most fossil species have been represented by very fragmentary remains. The well-preserved skull of the 25-15 million year old fox-sized Nimbacinus dicksoni from Queensland is giving us much needed insight, " Wroe said in a news release.
The study is published in the journal PLOS One.