Prehistoric bear-sized marsupial once roamed Australia, scientists reveal

Researchers have shed new light on the fossil remains of a huge bear-sized marsupial that once roamed Australia.

The partial skull and most of the skeleton were found in central Australia in 1973. New analysis has revealed that the creature, which lived 25 million years ago, is a new family of marsupials. Experts have named it Mukupirna nambensis, which means “big bones” in the Dieri and Malyangapa Aboriginal languages.

The research is published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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Experts from the University of New South Wales Sydney, Griffith University in Brisbane, Salford University in the UK, the Natural History Museum in London, and the American Museum of Natural History in New York participated in the research.

An artist's impression of Mukupirna nambensis.

An artist’s impression of Mukupirna nambensis.
(Picture: Peter Schouten/University of New South Wales)

“An analysis of Mukupirna’s evolutionary relationships reveals that although it was most closely related to wombats, it is so different from all known wombats as well as other marsupials, that it had to be placed in its own unique family,” explains the University of New South Wales Sydney in a statement.

University of New South Wales professor Mike Archer, who co-authored the paper, was part of the original team that discovered the remains on the clay floor of Lake Pinpa in 1973.

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“It was an extremely serendipitous discovery because in most years the surface of this dry lake is covered by sands blown or washed in from the surrounding hills,” he said in the statement, adding that the remains of the giant marsupial were found in the clay deposits.

“We found it by probing the dry flat surface of the Lake with a thin metal pole, like acupuncturing the skin of Mother Earth,” Archer explained. “We only excavated downwards into the clay if the pole contacted something hard below the surface – and in this case it turned out to be the articulated skeleton of a most mysterious new creature.”

Mukupirna, he noted, was similar in size to the modern black bear. Despite its size, the creature’s teeth indicate that it subsisted only on plants, leading researchers to describe it as a “gentle giant”.

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Australia continues to reveal new aspects of its prehistoric history. The discovery of huge prehistoric footprints, for example, has shed new light on what has been described as Australia’s “Jurassic Park”.

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In another project, an unusual “toothless” dinosaur was identified by paleontologists in Australia.

Follow James Rogers on Twitter @jamesjrogers

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