Researchers from the University of New South Wales uncovered a partial mammal’s skull, and initially presumed that it belonged to the Priscileo Rauscher genus of marsupial lion because of its teeth and size.
Marsupial lions died out 35,000 years ago and varied in size, with some as big as a modern-day African lioness, Michael Archer, professor of biological, earth and environmental science at the University of New South Wales, told CNN.
Experts studied the mammal’s skull and lower jaw, and noticed the animal’s skull anatomy was different than what they had previously encountered in other marsupial lions.
“As we found more and better specimens at Riversleigh, we began to realize it didn’t belong to that group at all. It was a new kind of marsupial that hadn’t been seen before,” Archer, who worked alongside lead author Anna Gillespie and Suzanne Hand, told CNN. “It was a different branch on the marsupial lion family tree,” he said.
It was only by studying the creature that researchers realised how “significantly different” the animal, named Lekaneleo, was.
Lekaneleo would have been the “size of a pussycat,” Archer said, but had “probably the most powerful flesh-cutting teeth that we’ve ever seen.”
“Lekaneleo had teeth in it that are a bit like micro bolt-cutting teeth; there is nothing this animal decided to eat that it couldn’t have cut into bite-size, swallowable pieces almost immediately,” Archer said.
Marsupials are a group of animals commonly known as “pouched mammals,” endemic to Australasia and the Americas. Koalas, kangaroos, wallabies and wombats belong to the group, which is characterized by premature birth followed by feeding the newborn from the mother’s nipples.
Experts believe that Lekaneleo lived in trees, surviving on creatures including birds, snakes, possums — and even animals the size of sheep. Although they are named “lions,” researchers said the animals were more closely related to kangaroos and koalas.
Experts say that in understanding the demise of now-extinct creatures like the marsupial lion, we will have a better understanding of how climate change will affect modern-day animals.
“These are such different kinds of carnivorous mammals that they were occupying an ecological niche that nothing today is similar to,” Archer told CNN.
“In a sense, it tells us how we have lost many distinctive specialized kinds of animals over time. And this is the result of climate change,” he said.
“We see many of these very strange groups that don’t have any living representatives, slowly disappearing. Understanding this whole relationship between environmental change and biodiversity is very important in understanding and anticipating what’s going to happen now,” he said.