Flinders University analysis reveals the true nature of South Australia's largest predator, the now extinct marsupial lion (Thylacoleo carnifex), after the only complete skeleton was found in caves under the Nullarbor.
In an article published today in the journal PLoS ONE, the researchers describe a skillful mountaineer with a heavy, muscular tail that helped balance and release the previous limbs to attack and consume the prey.
Lead author Rod Wells says that exploding at Henschke's Quarry, Naracoorte in 2007 exposed a cave containing almost complete remains of several individuals and then the largest single skeleton discovery in a cave below the plain of Nullarbor.
"Examining the entire skeleton reveals what a truly unique thylacoleo animal was," he said.
"It looked like a cross between a possum and a vombate, rose a little like a koala and moved with the stiff pace of a Tasmanian demon, while filling a niche unlike any other animal on Earth."
In fact, the anatomy of the animal is more similar to that of the Tasmanian Devil, the largest marsupial carnivore alive in Australia today.
For millions of years, Thylacoleo carnifex was Australia's largest and most ferocious mammal predator, using its climbing ability to ambush prey until the megafauna disappeared about 40,000 years ago.
The extinction of Australia's largest marsupial predator has intrigued paleontologists who have tried to determine the lion's lifestyle since it was first described using incomplete fragments of the skull and mandible in 1859.
"It has taken 160 years since the discovery of skull and jaw fragments at Lake Colungulac in Victoria to finally complete the skeletal puzzle of this enigmatic and controversial marsupial and reveal how nature has structured a super carnivorous of its ancient herbivorous ancestors," Wells said.
The researchers did not determine whether the marsupial lion was a cooperative hunter or simply an opportunist, but the fact that several adults and youngsters were found in caves suggests that they operate in social groups.
They believe that the marsupial lion was also a furtive predator of larger prey.
Coauthor and palaeontology speaker Aaron Camens compared the tail to that of other Australian marsupials.
"Our tail analysis suggests that it was suspended in the air and that it was being used in a way that differs from all living marsupials," he said.
The study "The first complete skeleton of Thylacoleo, the extinct" marsupial lion "of Australia, is available for free at https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0208020