An Extinct Carnivorous Marsupial Hunted Prey Larger Than Itself

circa 1895: Thylacinus cynocephalus, a marsupial wolf or Tasmanian tiger. Extinct by 1934. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Scientists have used skull reconstruction techniques to build a picture of an extinct marsupial which hunted prey larger than itself in Australia millions of years ago.

The results of the reconstruction of the skull of Nimbacinus dicksoni was published in the journal PLOS ONE by Marie Attard from the University of New England together with colleagues from the University of New South Wales.

Nimbacinus dicksoni is a member of an extinct family of Australian and New Guinean marsupial carnivores, Thylacinidae.

The majority of information known about species in this family stems from recovered skull fragments which limits species ecology and diversity analysis.

Scientists recovered a 11.6 million year old preserved skull of N. dicksoni from the Riversleigh World Heritage Fossil Site in northwestern Queensland and used it to determine if it was more likely to hunt small or large prey.

They applied virtual 3D reconstruction techniques and computer modelling to reconstruct the skull of Nimbacinus, digitally crash-testing and comparing it to models of large living marsupial carnivores (Tasmanian devil, spotted-tailed quoll and
northern quoll), and to the recently extinct Tasmanian tiger, N. dicksoni’s close relative.

The authors found that the similarity in mechanical performance of the skull between N. dicksoni and the largest quoll, the spotted-tailed quoll, was greater than the similarity to the Tasmanian tiger.

They suggest that N. dicksoni, a medium-sized marsupial of about 5 kg, had a high bite force for its size, was
predominantly carnivorous and was likely capable of hunting vertebrate prey exceeding its own body mass.

“Our findings suggest that Nimbacinus dicksoni was an opportunistic hunter, with potential prey including birds, frogs, lizards and snakes, as well as a wide range of marsupials,” Dr Attard says.

“In contrast, the iconic Tasmanian tiger was considerably more specialized than large living dasyurids and Nimbacinus, and was likely more restricted in the range of prey it could hunt, making it more vulnerable to extinction.”

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