July 6, 2011

Mega-Wombat Fossil Unearthed In North Australia

Scientists said Wednesday that the fossil of a mega-wombat has been unearthed in northern Australia.

The herbivorous diprotodon was the largest marsupial to ever roam the earth and lived between two million and 50,000 years ago.

The diprotodon skeleton was dug up in remote Queensland last week and scientists believe it could shed valuable light on the species' demise.

The ancient marsupial became extinct around the same time that indigenous tribes first appeared and debate has raged about the role of humans.

"There's been a lot of debate about what killed the megafauna and it's quite a hot topic in paleontology," Sue Hand, a professor on the team that made the discovery, told the AFP news agency.

She said the fossil is the most complete diprotodon ever found in Australia and was well preserved.  Hand added that it could be accurately dated and offer valuable insights into the role of humans and climate change in its demise.

"Dating has been one of the bugbears of trying to unravel what happened," she told AFP.

"It will be very interesting to see its age and if people came in first, for instance, from the north. There could be some very interesting data to be extracted from this find."

The animal was six feet, six inches tall and 11 feet, six inches long.  She said it was the size of a rhinoceros or a car, pigeon-toed and with a backward-facing pouch.

"They basically looked a lot like a wombat, a very big beefed-up wombat, much bigger than obviously anything that's around today," said Hand.

Megafauna are thought to have evolved into the diprotodon to cope with inhospitable climates and food scarcity.

Mike Archer, a professor of biological science at the University of New South Wales, said the discovery was extraordinary.

"We found the most gigantic marsupial ever known," he told BBC News.

"These were very huge animals but with pouches. If one tried to visualize what this thing looked like, you'd have to sort of think of a gigantic wombat on steroids."

Image Courtesy Nobu Tamura/Wikipedia (CC BY 3.0)