Giant wombat fossil unearthed

By Beau Gamble 6 July 2011
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Palaeontologists have discovered a near-complete skeleton of the largest marsupial that ever existed.

AUSTRALIAN RESEARCHERS HAVE UNEARTHED the bones of a diprotodon – a three tonne ‘giant wombat’ – on a remote cattle station near Burketown, Queensland. The bones form the most complete diprotodon skeleton ever found from a single specimen, the researchers say.

Professor Sue Hand, a palaeontologist at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and part of the research team, told Australian Geographic the diprotodon was comparable in size to a modern-day rhinoceros. “It was a bit like a wombat but looked more like a massive, rhino-type beast,” she says. “It was the biggest of them all – the biggest marsupial that ever lived on any continent.”

Sue says it’s unusual to find a diprotodon skeleton in such good condition. “We’ve found the skull and jaws, as well most of the rest of the skeleton,” she says. “It’s a really good specimen.”

The ongoing research is a joint venture between UNSW, the University of Queensland, the Queensland Museum and Xtrata Mount Isa Mines.

Sue and her team unearthed the remains at Floraville Station, on the Leichhardt River between Normanton and Burketown. Scattered diprotodon fossils have been found over much of Australia, but they were never known to exist so far north. “It will be very interesting to see how [diprotodons] that lived in northern Australia at that time differed to ones living in more southerly parts,” says Sue.

A reconstruction of prehistoric northern Australia with the diprotodon in the foreground. (Credit: Dorothy Dunphy)

Diprotodon demise

The diprotodon roamed the Earth for around 2.5 million years before it went extinct about 55,000 years ago. Uncovering the reason behind the diprotodon’s demise, and that of other Australian megafauna, is a “hot topic” in Australian palaeontology, says Sue.

“There’s a couple of different suggestions,” she says. “One is that humans actually over-hunted and basically wiped out the Australian megafauna. Another is that it was probably climate change, because a lot of the megafauna had already been lost before indigenous people arrived in Australia…But of course it could be a combination of the two.”

Sue believes her team’s discovery could eventually help to shed light on the debate. “Every site like this – particularly where you get an almost complete skeleton – promises to provide information that could weigh on one side of that argument or the other,” she says.

Megafauna graveyard

Palaeontologists have been investigating the discovery site at Floraville Station for more than 40 years, but only last year the bones of what appeared to be a diprotodon were first revealed. Sue now believes the site could hold the remains of many other Australian megafauna.

“There have been things like giant kangaroos found as well,” says Sue. “And one of the big lizards, called megalania, has been found in the immediate area…Basically, there’s going to be a lot of really good material to come out of this particular area in the near future.”