Marsupial lion: what is it?

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The marsupial lion was a powerful, extinct carnivorous marsupial native to Australia that lived between 1,600,000 and approximately 40,000 years ago. It had the strongest bite force of any mammal and was overengineered to catch prey like kangaroos. It likely hunted larger prey, such as giant wombats, and disappeared 40,000 years ago, possibly due to human activity.

The marsupial lion (Thylacoleo carnifex) is an extinct carnivorous marsupial native to Australia that lived between 1,600,000 and approximately 40,000 years ago. It is considered to be one of the most specialized carnivorous mammals ever to exist. Australian paleontologist Stephen Wroe claimed he would have defeated an African lion in a fight to the death, based on analysis of its skeleton and inferred killing style. The marsupial lion was the largest marsupial carnivore ever to exist in Australia, about the size of a female African lion or tiger.

The marsupial lion was a robust animal with powerful jaws and forelimbs. Like another extinct marsupial carnivore, the thylacine, the marsupial lion had a jaw that could open larger than any mammal and gave more room for the jaw muscles to attach. Based on extrapolations from its skull, scientists determined that, pound for pound, the marsupial lion had the strongest bite force of any mammal. Its “bolt-cutter” canines would have been able to bite directly into bone, while its signature feature – huge carnassals, or cheek pads, would have inflicted massive trauma on this victim. This use is distinct from that of all other extant carnivores, which use their carnassals for post-killing slaughter rather than implements of killing.

The large canine teeth of the marsupial lion resemble the canines of saber-toothed tigers, and the large canine motif indeed evolved independently on several occasions during the evolution of mammalian carnivores. Despite being called a “lion,” the marsupial lion wasn’t closely related to placental carnivores like African lions: their last common ancestor lived over 125 million years ago. As a marsupial, the marsupial lion achieved its form using an entirely different evolutionary trajectory than placental lions, although the two have converging characteristics, such as skull similarities.

The marsupial lion was obviously overengineered to catch prey like kangaroos, the largest animals in Australia today. It seems likely that it hunted larger prey that is now extinct, such as giant wombats (Diprotodon), which were ten feet (3m) tall, six feet (2m) long, and weighed up to three tons. It would have required great strength and ferocity to bring down such prey, which had a significant size advantage over the marsupial lion.

The marsupial lion disappeared 40,000 years ago. Like most other animals that went extinct during this time, humans are the most likely culprits.

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