The marsupial lion — a giant carnivore that hunted in Australia tens of thousands of years ago — has long mystified scientists. But the recent discovery of more of its fossils, including a nearly complete skeleton of the extinct beast, has revealed some of its secrets.
The newfound bones suggest that the marsupial lion (Thylacoleo carnifex) was an apex predator that relied on both ambush hunting and scavenging to satisfy its hearty appetite. It also had a stiff, muscular tail that it could use as tripod while handling food or climbing, just as many living marsupials, such as the kangaroo and Tasmanian devil, do today, the researchers said.
However, although the remarkable skeleton gives clues about the carnivore’s method of locomotion, the fossils don’t provide direct evidence about how the marsupial lion behaved. “Drawing very confident inferences [about behavior] can be difficult,” said Robin Beck, a lecturer in biology at the University of Salford in the United Kingdom, who was not involved with the study. “A lot of animals can do things that maybe you wouldn’t predict [that they could do] based on their skeletons.”
For example, “goats are very good at climbing trees, and that’s something you would never predict from their skeleton,” Beck told Live Science.
Despite this, scientists were thrilled to examine the newfound specimens of the marsupial lion. In spite of its name, the creature is not a lion, but rather a 220-lb. (100 kilograms) marsupial that vaguely resembles the mammalian lion. Moreover, it is the largest marsupial carnivore on record.
“It’s a very odd animal,” Beck said. “It has very odd teeth; it has premolars like bolt cutters. Unlike carnivores today, it doesn’t have big canines. It seems to be using its incisors for killing prey instead.” It also had “very powerful grasping hands,” he added.