Research Reveals How Australia’s Largest Carnivorous Mammal Might Have Gone Extinct

Research Reveals How Australia's Largest Carnivorous Mammal Might Have Gone Extinct
Jose Manuel Canete / Wikimedia Commons/Cropped and Resized (CC BY-SA 4.0)

For about 2 million years, the marsupial known as Thylacoleo carnifex roamed around Australia, standing out for its extremely powerful jaws and impressive size, which was somewhere between that of a modern-day leopard and African lion. While it was largely speculated that this creature, which was Australia’s largest known carnivorous mammal, went extinct about 35,000 to 45,000 years ago due to the growing presence of humans on the continent, new research suggests that it was natural climate change that played the biggest role in the extinction of Thylacoleo.

According to research conducted by Vanderbilt University paleontologist Larisa DeSantis and colleagues from the University of New South Wales and the University of Queensland, climate change might have caused Thylacoleo carnifex to lose its habitat and eventually go extinct several thousands of years after the first humans arrived in Australia. As noted by Gizmodo, the finding was a rare example of animal extinction where humans were not involved in any way, shape, or form, as long-term, natural shifts in climate were pinpointed as the driving factor behind the ancient creature’s disappearance over time.

In order to determine the reason why Thylacoleo disappeared, DeSantis and her colleagues used stable isotope analysis, as well as 3D imaging techniques, to analyze the marsupial’s fossilized teeth for clues that could explain its extinction. The researchers also found that Thylacoleo thrived as an ambush hunter that attacked its prey up close, rather than chasing fast-moving creatures in a more open setting. That was where climate change came in, as Australia started drying out naturally about 350,000 years ago, with the continent’s forests transforming into savanna. This, the researchers stressed, was a setting Thylacoleo was ill-equipped to adjust to.

“Marsupial lions were far more specialized than African lions. They even had a proportionately larger brain than African lions as well as large, uniquely formidable, large can-opener-like thumb claws,” read a statement from University of New South Wales paleontologist Michael Archer.

“What’s increasingly clear now is that [Thylacoleo] evidently survived the arrival of humans 60,000 years ago, but apparently not the profound impacts of a rapidly drying climate that undermined the survival of a range of megafaunal mammals in Australia.”

Speaking to Gizmodo, DeSantis added that her team’s study is proof that even the “fiercest [of] predators” are no match for climate change.

As Gizmodo further explained, Thylacoleo existed at around the same time as the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, a carnivorous marsupial that went extinct early in the 20th century. The publication theorized that the latter animal might not have had the same problems adjusting to the aridification that ultimately transformed Australia’s forests into savanna.