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Megafauna Monday: Diprotodon

By Pat, 16 September 2013 News

Diprotodon skeleton.

Diprotodon gets its name from its prominent front teeth.
Image: CSIRO

Welcome to Megafauna Monday, where we help you chase away the post-weekend blues by showcasing some of the mighty beasts that once roamed the planet. We thought we’d start with a bang by introducing you to the largest marsupial ever discovered: Diprotodon.

Fast facts

Scientific name: Diprotodon optatum

Lived: from approximately 1.6 million to 45 000 years ago, although they may have survived longer. Diprotodon fossils have been found over much of Australia, with the exception of the Northern Territory, Tasmania and south-west Western Australia.

Ate: plants. Diprotodon were probably browsers, eating shrubs and possibly grasses.

Claim to fame: Diprotodon were the largest marsupials ever known to have lived. They could grow to almost four metres in length and would have weighed almost 3000 kilograms. To put this in perspective, red kangaroos are the largest living marsupials today. Adult red kangaroo males only weigh up to 92 kilograms!

Modern day equivalent: a hippopotamus-sized wombat.

More information

Diprotodon were the first of the Australian megafauna to be named by scientists. The name means ‘two forward teeth’ and refers to their unusual teeth. The first Diprotodon fossils were found in the 1830s, in a cave in central New South Wales. Since then, fossils have been found across the country, including hair and footprints. Sometimes groups of Diprotodon have been found together. Some female skeletons even have babies where their pouch would have been.

Exactly when Diprotodon became extinct is not clear. Some date the extinction to around 45 000 years ago, others suggest more recent times. What is almost certain is that early Indigenous Australians encountered Diprotodon. Some Diprotodon fossils have marks that have been interpreted as being made by human tools and weapons. This would indicate that humans may have killed and eaten these massive mammals.

While early Indigenous Australians may have encountered Diprotodon, there is no doubt these mighty marsupials are long gone. What caused their extinction is a matter of debate. Some blame climate change, others think they may have been hunted to extinction. Also, changing fire patterns may have altered the environment in such a way that Diprotodon no longer had anything to eat. It’s also possible that it was a combination of factors that caused Diprotodon extinction.

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