A skull and other fossils from northeastern Australia belong to a new species in the extinct family of marsupial lions.
This newly named species, Wakaleo schouteni, was a predator about the size of a border collie, says vertebrate paleontologist Anna Gillespie of the University of New South Wales in Sydney. At least 18 million years ago (and perhaps as early as 23 million years ago), it roamed what were then hot, humid forests. Its sturdy forelimbs suggest it could chase possums, lizards and other small prey up into trees. Gillespie expects W. shouteni — the 10th species named in its family — carried its young in a pouch as kangaroos, koalas and other marsupials do.
Actual lions evolved on a different fork in the mammal genealogical tree, but Australia’s marsupial lions got their feline nickname from the size and slicing teeth of the first species named, in 1859. Thylacoleo carnifex was about as big as a lion. And its formidable teeth could cut flesh. But unlike other pointy-toothed predators, marsupial lions evolved a horizontal cutting edge. A bottom tooth stretched back along the jawline on each side, its slicer edge as long as four regular teeth. An upper tooth extended too, giving this marsupial lion a bite like a “bolt cutter,” Gillespie says.
The newly identified species lived some 17 million years before its big bolt-cutter relative. Though the new species’ tooth number matched those of typical early marsupials, W. schouteni already had a somewhat elongated tooth just in front of the molars, Gillespie and colleagues report December 7 in the Journal of Systematic Paleontology. W. schouteni is “pushing the history of marsupial lions deeper into time,” she says.
Marsupial lions got their nickname from the first species discovered, which was close to the size of a lion (silhouette at left, bottom). The newly named species, Wakaleo schouteni (left, top), was smaller and lived much earlier in time, but it already has some elongated teeth (right) that were a hallmark of the family. The later, bigger lion’s slicing teeth were even longer.