- The most powerful bite was called a marsupial lion in Australia. Though referred to as a lion, they are not related.
- These extinct animals were agile and adept hunters.
- Humans are the possible reason why the Thylacoleo became extinct.
There are some really huge animals in our world today. While whales and elephants spring immediately to mind – they don’t bite. When thinking of the fearsome and toothy creatures that roam the world, sharks and grizzlies might top the list. However, their bite doesn’t compare to this monster of our past.
The extinct Thylacoleo (pronounced THIGH-lah-co-LEE-oh) carnifex is a genus of Pleistocene Australian marsupial mammals. It is the largest carnivorous Australian mammal and is often referred to as the “meat-cutting marsupial lion.” It had a skull the size of a lion’s head and had large tusks and crushing molars.
Despite weighing over 200 pounds, Thylacoleo was an adept climber. It had several unique characteristics, including flesh-shearing teeth and a lethal thumb claw. This makes the Thylacoleo fascinating for archaeologists, paleontologists, historians, and animal enthusiasts.
Description and Size
The Thylacoleo was discovered during the 19th century by Richard Owen. He was also the one who gave it its name. The discovery of Thylacoleo debunked beliefs that the large marsupial mammals of Australia, such as the giant wombat, lived prosperously because there were no predators. Based on the artist renderings of Thylacoleo, this animal was as dangerous as any of the big cats today.
Experts believed that the Thylacoleo would have preyed on the Procoptodon, koala, and kangaroo. And while the giant wombat would have been spared, the Thylacoleo would have most likely victimized the young Diprotodon.
The Thylacoleo was about five feet (152.4 cm) long and two feet (61 cm) in height. It was as long as a leopard but bigger than the other marsupial animal, Pilbara ningaui. Researchers estimated that the Thylacoleo weighed around 286.6 pounds (130 kilograms).
The tail of the Thylacoleo was similar to a kangaroo. It was long and powerful and contained narrow bones called chevrons. These were intended to protect the animal’s blood vessels. The Thylacoleo used its tail for balance and to stand upright when catching prey.
The Thylacoleo also had great power in its hind legs. However, this does not mean speed, so paleontologists believed that this predator stalked its prey from the treetops, dropping on them when it was ready to feed. This is similar to how Tasmanian devils and other large cats stalk their prey.
Thylacoleos were diprotodontians, which means “two front teeth.” They used the two prominent incisors from their lower jaws that gave these predators the most powerful bite for their size of any known species, living or extinct. Experts originally posited that these mammals fed on plants rather than animals, but modern anatomists said the Thylacoleo also had strong jaw muscles and sharp premolars.
Front Legs and Forepaws
This animal had powerful front legs accompanied by sharp claws that could quickly slash the bodies of its prey. The Thylacoleo’s forepaws had retractable claws for climbing trees and securing prey. The purpose of the claw can be compared to how regular house cats today use theirs.
Brain and Nasal Cavity
CAT scans revealed that Thylacoleo relied heavily on its sense of hearing, sight, and smell. It also had a sizeable and highly developed nasal cavity, resulting in its strong sense of smell. The Thylacoleo also had structures in the palate, indicating the presence of a specialized organ that could detect pheromones. These compounds help Tasmanian devils and other related species assess female species’ reproductive receptiveness.
What Did Thylacoleo Eat?
There is much debate about the kind of diet that Thylacoleo followed. At first, the species was thought to be an herbivore until Mr. Owen described it as a “predatory beast.” Today, the Thylacoleo is referred to as a carnivore, bone crusher, and scavenger. It is widely believed that Thylacoleo fed on crocodile eggs, carrion, meat, and bone marrow.
While others still believe it could chew plants, paleontologist Robert Broom pointed out the lack of grinding teeth in the Thylacoleo. With no grinding teeth, it could not have possibly processed plant matter. If there were any plant matter in its diet, it would have been minimal.
There is evidence to believe the Thylacoleo was a carnivore. The teeth were designed to slice through flesh and bones. Plus, it has powerful legs and arms and retractable thumb claws characteristic of predators. The shape of the Thylacoleo’s head is similar to other carnivores’ skulls, except for the reduced canines and premolar.
Studies found that the Thylacoleo’s bite strength had the most powerful bite of any mammal predator, living or extinct. It suggests that this species could have taken on bigger prey, including the giant wombat.
The Thylacoleo lived in the plains of Australia. That’s also where its fossils were found. The places where these fossils were found had been described as dry, open forests, such as the Darling Downs, Naracoorte and Nullarbor caves, and Wellington. Some experts also believe that Thylacoleo stayed up in the trees while stalking its prey. How trees were able to support its weight, however, remains a mystery.
Thylacoleos may have also lived inside caves since some fossils were discovered there. Some of these caves have claw marks on the walls, suggesting the presence of a giant predator. In May 2002, researchers found one complete and a dozen incomplete skeletons of Thylacoleo in cave openings in a remote part of the Nullarbor Plain.
Threats and Predators
It is hard to imagine a threat to the Thylacoleo since it was considered the largest carnivorous mammal of its time. It was neither purely an apex predator nor a scavenger. Instead, it was a bit of both. Its size didn’t allow it to be skilled at chasing prey. Researchers suggest it could have been a great ambush hunter and most definitely a scavenger.
However it acquired its prey, it wouldn’t take long before the game succumbed to the Thylacoleo’s powerful legs and jaw. The mammal had incisors in the front of its jaw and a third molar along the cheek that acted as a shearing blade.
Discoveries and Fossils
The Thylacoleo was first discovered in the 19th century. It was given its name, which means “marsupial lion,” by Mr. Owen in 1859. Until 2002, no complete skeletons had been found, but a group of speleologists in May of that year discovered one whole structure of the Thylacoleo in a cave in Nullarbor.
Before that, Thylacoleo was known only for the fragmentary remains of its teeth, postcranial fossils, partial skulls, and partial jaws. An almost-complete skeleton was found in 1966, but it lacked a foot and tail. After this, more skeletons were found in the Naracoorte Caves in South Australia.
This species was distributed across Australia during the Pleistocene era. It was found in Northern Territory, Queensland, Wellington Caves (New South Wales), Western Australia, and Naracoorte Caves in South Australia.
Humans are the possible reason why the Thylacoleo became extinct. Hunters have most likely hunted the herbivore animals from which the Thylacoleo fed. This resulted in the extinction of this marsupial lion. Based on some cave paintings, it is also possible that humans hunted the Thylacoleo out of hunger and aggression.
Similar Animals to Thylacoleo
Despite its name, the Thylacoleo is not related to lions. It was a member of Diprotodontia (giant wombats). Its closest living relatives are the koalas. Its size and weight were compared to a leopard and cougar, respectively.
- Koalas – An arboreal herbivorous marsupial native to Australia. They have solid and razor-sharp claws that can cause injuries. Like the Thylacoleo, koalas also have a strong bite. They may appear friendly, but they can also lash out and become aggressive.
- Wombats – These short-legged marsupials are also native to Australia. They are only 40 inches in length and have small, stubby tails. Wombats were only friendly when they were still babies. Adult wombats can become aggressive.
- Koala Despite being called a marsupial lion, the koala is thought to be the closest relative of the Thylacoleo.
- Wombat The wombat would have shared a region with the Thylacoleo. Learn more about it here.
- The 10 Strongest Animal Bite Forces in the World The Thylacoleo may have had a powerful bite, but it no more. Check out this article to find the bite force of living animals.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Arip Apandi/Shutterstock.com
FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
When did the Thylacoleo live?
The Thylacoleo lived in the plains of Australia from the early to the late Pleistocene. This was about two million to 40,000 years ago.
How big was Thylacoleo?
The Thylacoleo was about five feet long and two feet in height.
What did the Thylacoleo feed on?
Experts believe that the Thylacoleo is a carnivore. As such, it preyed on mammals, including baby giant wombats, during its time. Some also thought it could be partly herbivorous, though its teeth didn’t have the features to grind plants.
Was Thylacoleo an apex predator or a scavenger?
The Thylacoleo could not be a skillful predator because of its size and weight. However, researchers believed that it could have been an ambush predator and scavenger at the same time. The Thylacoleo attacked its prey by pouncing on them from treetops.
What were the distinguishing features of the Thylacoleo?
It had enlarged cheek teeth and a broad, heavy, and short-snouted skull. It also had the longest shearing tooth, an enlarged thumb claw encased in a sheath, and canine-like upper and horizontally oriented lower incisors.
How strong was the Thylacoleo’s bite force?
Experts believe that the Thylacoleo had the bite force of a large male African lion.
Where to find the Thylacoleo’s fossils?
The fossils of adult and baby Thylacoleos can be found in the Australian Museum. It has a huge fossil collection of the marsupial lion. The adult Thylacoleo has a complete skeleton, while the baby Thylacoleo lacks the lower jaw. The juvenile form has no skull yet.
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