Fossil Teeth Reveal Diet of Extinct Australian Marsupials

Chemical analysis of fossil tooth enamel from extinct marsupials that lived in what is now southeastern Queensland 5 to 2.5 million years ago has revealed their diet and habitats.

This image shows extinct marsupials from the Pliocene of Australia: the kangaroo Protemnodon and the large marsupial herbivore Euryzygoma dunense in the background (Protemnodon by Nobu Tamura / CC BY 3.0; Euryzygoma by Anne Musser / © Australian Museum)

This image shows extinct marsupials from the Pliocene of Australia: the kangaroo Protemnodon and the large marsupial herbivore Euryzygoma dunense in the background (Protemnodon by Nobu Tamura / CC BY 3.0; Euryzygoma by Anne Musser / © Australian Museum)

Scientists led by Dr Gilbert Price from the University of Queensland analyzed carbon isotope ratios present in fossil teeth of Protemnodon sp., Macropus sp., the extinct kangaroo Troposodon sp. and the marsupial herbivore Euryzygoma dunense.

The results suggest that these prehistoric animals occupied specialized dietary niches and did not rely on identical sources of food. For example, the extinct kangaroo ate plants similar to those consumed by present-day kangaroos in temperate and tropical regions, rather than the plants that now grow in this region.

“This period, the Pliocene, is critical to understand the origins and evolution of Australia’s unique modern animals,” said Dr Price and colleagues, who report their results in the open-access journal PLoS ONE.

“It is during this time that the Australian fauna first began to take on its modern appearance and distinctiveness, with many modern Australian marsupials, such as the agile wallaby Macropus gracilis, first appearing in Pliocene fossil deposits.”

The findings also suggest that southeastern Queensland hosted a mosaic of tropical forests, wetlands and grasslands during the Pliocene.

“It is vital for us to understand what types of environments Australian megafauna thrived in during the Pliocene. Obtaining detailed environmental records from this time can help us find the drivers of the subsequent extinctions of many of these large marsupials,” added lead author Dr Shaena Montanari from the American Museum of Natural History.

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Bibliographic information: Montanari S. et al. 2013. Pliocene Paleoenvironments of Southeastern Queensland, Australia Inferred from Stable Isotopes of Marsupial Tooth Enamel. PLoS ONE 8 (6): e66221; doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0066221