Guest essay by Eric Worrall
The University of New South Wales, birthplace of the Ship of Fools, sees no connection between the arrival of Australian Aboriginals, and the subsequent rapid demise of a dangerous apex predator which dominated Australia for millions of years.
Climate change the likely killer of Australian marsupial lion
19 OCT 2018 UNSW MEDIA
Scientists believe Thylacoleo carnifex was probably a victim of the drying out of Australia, which began about 350,000 years ago, rather than from the impact of humans.
For nearly two million years the marsupial lion was one of Australia’s top predators. The animals were sized between leopards and African lionesses but had a bite that was about 80 per cent as strong as a large lion, enabling it to crush bones with its powerful jaws.
The study led by Professor Larisa DeSantis of Vanderbilt University posited that, despite being well-adapted for consuming flesh and bone, Thylacoleo was likely the victim of the drying out of Australia, which began about 350,000 years ago.
The marsupial lions persisted for thousands of years afterwards, as more and more forests disappeared. The animals survived even past the influx of humans to the continent roughly 60,000 years ago. Ultimately, the loss of forest habitats likely led to the extinction of these predators, with the last known record sometime between approximately 35 and 45 thousand years ago.
“These data provide evidence that the marsupial lion was an ambush predator and relied on prey that occupied denser cover,” Professor DeSantis said.
“As the landscape became drier and forests less-dense, these apex predators may have become less-effective hunters and succumbed to extinction.
“The study of these ancient fossils provides us with cautionary lessons for the future: climate change can impact even the fiercest predators.”
Despite the dryness of the Australian continent, there are substantial forested areas, along with vast areas covered in dry scrubland vegetation which could potentially provide cover to well camouflaged ambush predators.
Feral cats are becoming a serious nuisance in the Australian outback. While feral cats are nowhere near as large as Thylacoleo carnifex, and of course feral cats are not marsupials, if anecdotal evidence is to be believed our feral cats are rapidly growing larger. Perhaps there is a vacant ecological niche waiting to be filled.