Marsupial lion in Aboriginal rock art discovered

This video says about itself:

15 Nov 2011

Bone Diggers: Mystery of a Lost Predator

Australia is known for its cute marsupials, the koala, the kangaroo and the wombat among others. Very few people are aware that there was once a marsupial that was a deadly “creep up and get ya” predator that was more ferocious than a sabre tooth tiger. It was Thylacoleo Carnifex — the Marsupial Lion, Australia’s lost predator.

The Nullarbor Plain is a remote treeless desert resting between the Great Australian Bight and the Great Sandy Desert. It is hard, stony country…flat and featureless.

In May of 2002 an group of cavers, in an Indiana Jones style operation, discovered three caves, which had never been entered by man. The entrance to one of the caves was mere shoulder-width, vertical tube that rapidly expanded to cathedral proportions. In the first cave their head torches illuminated a sight that caused scientific wonderment and a world-wide media frenzy.

At the far end of a side tunnel the cavers discovered the pristine and complete skeleton of the fabled marsupial lion, Thylacoleo. It lay there as if it had died only a year ago. The skeleton was bleach white against the red earth and not a speck of dust on it. Their immediate reaction was to take a photo and get out – their main concern was to preserve the site for scientific analysis.

The photo of Thylacoleo and the cave coordinates ended up on the desk of Dr John Long, vertebrate palaeontologist a world renowned Bone Digger with the Western Australian Museum. Within a matter of weeks funding and an expedition to recover the remains had been arranged. It would prove a journey full of surprises both during the expedition and later as the remains were studied. The first surprise to take John and his team by surprise was the age of the remains. He was sure the skeleton could only be about 40,000 years old — several dating techniques later and a shattering date of at least 500,000 years suddenly propelled the find into mega-star status.

Bone Diggers – Mystery of a Lost Predator is the amazing story of the dangerous recovery mission and how the remains of the marsupial lion allowed science a unique opportunity to reconstruct the beast and it’s behaviour.

From recreating its brain to morphological analysis, the life and form of Thylacoleo began to take shape – this is science at its best!

A co-production between Storyteller Media and the Western Australian Museum

Storyteller produce and distribute documentaries and factual programming specialising in animals and nature; from endangered species and what’s being done to save them to mysterious animal and monster stories.

From COSMOS magazine in Australia:

Marsupial lion found in Aboriginal rock art

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

by Kerensa McElroy
Cosmos Online

SYDNEY: Ancient rock art depicting the extinct marsupial lion has been found in the Kimberly region of Western Australia, says a study in the journal Antiquity.

The first convincing example of a marsupial lion found in rock art to date, the find suggests that early Australians and marsupial lions co-existed.

It also hints at what marsupial lions may have looked like. Painted in red ochre, the image depicts a large four-legged animal, with a strong, prominent front limb poised for action, protruding claws and stripes running the length of its back.

New look at an old beast

The rock art “adds to our knowledge of the animal’s appearance that, without the discovery of a mummified animal, would have remained conjecture,” says the study. “The artist has depicted a tail with tufted tip, the ears are pointed rather than rounded [and] the animal is striped, rather than spotted.”

The marsupial lion (Thylacoleo carnifex) is well known from the fossil record. The first complete skeleton was unearthed in 2002 in a Nullarbor Plain cave by researchers from the Western Australian Museum. From that find, scientists know that Thylacoleo was front heavy, with large, strong forelimbs. They also had vicious claws and razor-sharp teeth, making them ferocious predators.

However, as the species has been extinct for tens of thousands of years (some estimates suggest 30,000 years, but direct dating of the fossils has not been completed), experts don’t know exactly what they looked like. They’re also unsure what drove them extinct and even if they were still around when the first Aborigines arrived on the continent.

Some evidence suggests climate change was to blame, whilst other evidence points to early Australians hunting them and burning the land.

Lion or tiger?

Tour guide and amateur archaeologist Tim Willing found the painting while exploring rock art near the northwestern Kimberly coast in June 2008. He took digital images of the painting and then, along with co-author Kim Akerman, published a description of them in Antiquity earlier this year.

Many Australian cave paintings have been found to depict the Tasmanian tiger or thylacine, which is known to have persisted on the mainland until around 2,000 year ago. However, the newly discovered painting has several features that set it apart from others thought to depict thylacines.

The stripes of the animal in the painting are more extensive than those of a thylacine, which cover only the animal’s rear end. The creature also appears to have cat-like claws, a feature of Thylacoleo. Furthermore, the muzzle is blunt, not long and tapered like a Tasmanian tiger’s.

“Compared with the powerful forequarters, the hindquarters appear underdeveloped,” write the authors. “This apparent asymmetry is not seen in rock art images of thylacines, where both hind- and forelimbs are usually of similar dimensions. However thylacoleos were equipped with powerful claws on the hind limbs and these appear to be depicted in this image.”

The discovery suggests that early Aborigines and marsupial lions were contemporaries, and may also lend weight to the idea that the arrival of people contributed to the demise of the species.

Unanswered question

According to the study, Australian palaeontologists John Long, of Museum Victoria in Melbourne, and Rod Wells, of Flinders University in South Australia, agree that the animal pictured is likely to be Thylacoleo.

However, Steven Wroe, a palaeontologist from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, isn’t convinced. Whilst conceding that the coexistence of marsupial lions and Australian aboriginals would be exciting, he believes the rock art could still be a representation of a thylacine.

Wroe points out that mainland Tasmanian tigers may have had a different pattern of stripes than the isolated Tasmanian population. “The fact that it has stripes at all, that are in any way similar to the Tasmanian tiger, suggests to me that it is a Tasmanian tiger” he told Cosmos Online.

April 2011: A massive section part of the Nullarbor in South Australia is being declared a Wilderness Protection Area, giving the unique parcel of land the highest level of environmental protection: here.

Isolation Doomed the Tasmanian Tiger. The Tasmanian devil could suffer the same fate as their homeland cousin — the extinct Tasmanian tiger: here.


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