Here in the United States, we’re familiar with extinct megafauna like mastodons and mammoths, the saber-toothed tiger and the giant sloth. But the list of huge critters that went extinct long ago is sometimes surprising (there’s the saber-toothed salmon, for example), especially when we look outside North America.
In Australia, for example, there’s the marsupial lion (Thylacoleo carnifex), which lived about 1.6 million to 46,000 years ago. Despite its name and a size that was similar to that of a lion, it was not a cat — it’s more closely related to koalas and wombats — but it was the largest meat-eater ever to live on the continent.
That date for when the marsupial lion died out happens to match pretty closely to when humans first arrived on Australia, and that has led many scientists to wonder whether humans drove the species extinct. But a study released this week by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says no, that species and other megafauna of the region known as Sahul (which includes Australia and New Guinea) were the victims of climate change, not human hunters.
“It is now increasingly clear that the disappearance of the megafauna of Sahul took place over tens, if not hundreds, of millennia under the influence of inexorable, albeit erratic, climatic deterioration,” the study’s lead author, Stephen Wroe of the University of New South Wales, said in a statement.
It’s too bad that the marsupial lion was lost, because it appears that it would have been a pretty awesome animal: It had semi-opposable thumbs, for instance, which may have helped with holding prey. But I probably wouldn’t have wanted to meet one out in the wild.
Artwork by Peter Schouten, via EurekAlert