This giant marsupial was a seasonal migrant

Diprotodon optatum

MEGA MIGRATOR Diprotodon optatum is the largest-known marsupial. A new analysis suggests the giant plant eater might have migrated long distances, much like today’s zebras or wildebeests.

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The largest marsupial to ever walk the Earth just got another accolade: It’s also the only marsupial known to migrate seasonally.

Diprotodon optatum was a massive wombat-like herbivore that lived in what’s now Australia and New Guinea during the Pleistocene, until about 40,000 years ago. Now, an analysis of one animal’s teeth suggests that it undertook long, seasonal migrations like those made by zebras and wildebeests in Africa.  

Animals pick up the chemical element strontium through their diet, and it leaves a record in their teeth. The ratio of different strontium isotopes varies from place to place, so it can provide clues about where an animal lived. Strontium isotope ratios in an incisor from one D. optatum revealed a repeating pattern. That suggests the animal migrated seasonally — it moved around, but generally hit up the same rest stops each year, researchers report September 27 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

It’s the first evidence to show a marsupial — living or extinct — migrating in this way, says study coauthor Gilbert Price, a paleoecologist at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia.  It’s not clear exactly why this mega-marsupial might have migrated, but an analysis of the carbon isotopes in its teeth suggests it ate a fairly limited diet. So it might have migrated to follow food sources that popped up seasonally in different places, the authors suggest.

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