Research conducted by an Australian team of scientists has concluded that a giant marsupial called diprotodon, a mammal distantly related to today’s koalas and wombats, once roamed the isolated continent in a unique manner — it is the only known marsupial that followed a seasonal migratory pattern. Oddly enough, the discovery resulted from studying the chemical composition of the prehistoric animal’s teeth.
Phys.org reported this week that through the analysis of small portions of the teeth of fossil records of the diprotodon, Dr. Gilbert Price of the University of Queensland, and his team, were able to track the animal’s migratory route across Australia. The giant marsupial, which was 1.8 meters (six feet) tall and 3.5 meters (11.5 feet) long, made a 200-kilometer (322-mile) round-trip migration in its quest for food during an Australian Ice Age.
Price said that the evidence showed that the fossilized teeth revealed that the diprotodon was an example of “you are what you eat,” pointing out that the “chemicals of the food they consumed became part of their teeth.” By analyzing the composition of the giant herbivore’s teeth, the researchers were able to determine the geochemistry of the soils where the plants they ate tended to grow, thus providing a migratory map of of the animal.
Price noted that, admittedly, some modern-day Australia marsupials, such as kangaroos, were somewhat nomadic and exhibited migratory patterns. However, none of them, nor any other prehistoric marsupial ever discovered, have been known to follow seasonal migratory patterns. He added that the ecology of Ice Age Australia was far different from what is present today.
Dr. Price suggested that the ecology was “similar to Noah’s Ark,” comparing the isolated continent to the biblical ship that carried the samples of animals. Australia’s animals, he noted, lived in a unique environment or set of ecosystems that allowed for the continent’s species to develop untouched by outside factors.
The research may eventually shed light on threats to contemporary migratory animals and the effects on ecosystems, including other animal populations, should they, too, become extinct like the diprotodon.
Dr. Price has done ground-breaking work with the diprotodon fossils in the past. In 2008, his research (also posted by Phys.org) offered evidence that proved that instead of eight distinct species of diprotodon on the continent, there was only one in all of Australia.
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