Biology

Newly classified prehistoric wombat relative was as big as a bear

Newly classified prehistoric w...
Mukupirna nambensis was over four times the size of a modern wombat
Mukupirna nambensis was over four times the size of a modern wombat
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Mukupirna nambensis was over four times the size of a modern wombat
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Mukupirna nambensis was over four times the size of a modern wombat
The partial, heavily fragmented skull
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The partial, heavily fragmented skull

A new analysis of fossilized bones, unearthed 47 years ago in Australia, indicate that they're from a previously unknown giant prehistoric relative of the wombat. It's so different from other marsupials, however, that it's been placed in a family all of its own.

Said to be about the size of a modern black bear and weighing around 150 kg (331 lb), the creature has been named Mukupirna nambensis – that means "big bones" in the Dieri and Malyangapa Aboriginal languages. It lived during the Oligocene epoch, approximately 25 million years ago, and is the sole member of the just-created Mukupirnidae family.

A partial skull and most of a skeleton were initially discovered in 1973, in the clay bed of Lake Pinpa, which is a dry salt lake east of the Flinders Range in South Australia. At the time, because the fossilized bones were so heavily encased in clay, the scientists didn't realize the full significance of their find.

Recently, though, an international team of paleontologists took a closer, more in-depth look, resulting in the new classification.

The partial, heavily fragmented skull
The partial, heavily fragmented skull

Analysis of Mukupirna nambensis' teeth suggest that despite its imposing size, it likely just fed on plants. And while its powerful front legs indicate that it was quite a good digger, it probably confined its digging to scratching for food such as roots and tubers – by contrast, modern wombats dig themselves burrows in the ground.

"Koalas and wombats are amazing animals, but animals like Mukupirna show that their extinct relatives were even more extraordinary, and many of them were giants," says Dr. Robin Beck of Britain's University of Salford.

A paper on the research – which also involved scientists from Australia's University of New South Wales, Griffin University, the Natural History Museum in London, and the American Museum of Natural History – was recently published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Source: University of New South Wales

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