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Protemnodon kangaroo fossils may explain their extinction

Did you know that enormous kangaroos, larger than any alive today, once roamed Australia and New Guinea? Meet the remarkable Protemnodon, a genus of extinct megafauna a team of paleontologists has just spent years investigating. Their discoveries have rewritten how we understand these ancient giants, revealing even more fascinating details of their time on Earth.

Protemnodon kangaroo

Protemnodon kangaroos were a diverse genus that lived from 5 million years ago up until about 40,000 years ago. These creatures showcased a considerable variation in physical size across different species.

While some of the Protemnodon species had body sizes that were comparable to today’s grey kangaroos, others were substantially larger, reaching weights upwards of 350 pounds.

This weight is roughly double that of the heaviest red kangaroos known today, which typically weigh around 200 pounds. These larger Protemnodon species displayed a much stockier build, making them significantly bulkier and larger than any contemporary kangaroo species.

Finding the fossil

In 2013, with further discoveries in 2018 and 2019, scientists made a remarkable breakthrough at Lake Callabonna in South Australia. They unearthed multiple complete skeletons of Protemnodon.

This remarkable fossil collection ignited a comprehensive 5-year research project led by Dr. Isaac Kerr. The outcome of this investigation has fundamentally changed how scientists perceive these fascinating ancient creatures.

Kerr’s team pored over hundreds of fossils, traveling the globe. They found significant differences in how Protemnodon species looked, lived, and even hopped. Some were built for speed in open deserts. Others, slow and stout, might have even walked on all fours.

Meet the Protemnodon kangaroos

Let’s introduce three of the newly described Protemnodon kangaroos:

Protemnodon viator

This species, known as Protemnodon viator, weighed approximately 350 pounds and was uniquely adapted to the arid central Australian deserts, an environment similar to that inhabited by today’s red kangaroos.

With its long limbs and a more streamlined body compared to its relatives, Protemnodon viator was evidently designed for efficient, fast hopping across vast, open landscapes. The name “viator,” which translates to “traveler” in Latin, aptly reflects its ability to cover large distances in search of food and water in its harsh desert habitat.

Protemnodon mamkurra

Protemnodon mamkurra was a distinctive member of the Protemnodon genus, characterized by its thick bones and robust structure. Unlike the more gracile and agile kangaroos familiar today, mamkurra was likely more akin to a large, somewhat clumsy quokka, potentially adopting a mixed mode of locomotion that included walking on all fours at times.

In consultation with the Boandik people, native to southeastern South Australia, researchers named this species. The name they chose, “mamkurra,” translates to “great kangaroo,” reflecting both its impressive size and cultural significance.

Protemnodon dawsonae

Among the newly described species, Protemnodon dawsonae remains somewhat enigmatic due to the limited fossil records available. What is known suggests that this species was likely a mid-speed hopper, conceptually similar in its locomotion to the modern swamp wallaby, which is capable of both fast movements and more measured, energy-conserving hops.

This species honors Dr. Lyndall Dawson, a renowned Australian paleontologist who made significant contributions to the study of kangaroo systematics and fossil analysis. The naming of this species recognizes her dedication and impact in the field of paleontology, particularly in enhancing our understanding of Australia’s rich megafauna history.

Kangaroo mystery: Why did Protemnodon disappear?

The big question surrounding the Protemnodon species is their sudden disappearance around 40,000 years ago. These kangaroos were notably robust and adaptable, thriving across a wide range of environments from the arid deserts of central Australia to the lush, high-rainfall forests of Tasmania and New Guinea.

Despite their ability to adapt to vastly different habitats and their physical robustness, all Protemnodon species became extinct, while their smaller, less specialized relatives such as wallaroos and grey kangaroos managed to survive.

Dr. Isaac Kerr and Professor Gavin Prideaux, among other researchers, are actively studying these extinct kangaroos to understand the factors behind their disappearance. The comprehensive study led by Dr. Kerr, which meticulously reviewed fossil records and other archaeological data, aims to provide insights into the life and eventual extinction of these creatures.

By analyzing aspects such as their bone structure, geographic distribution, and environmental adaptations, the research seeks to uncover whether changes in climate, habitat loss, increased predation, or human activity might have contributed to their extinction.

This investigation is part of a broader effort to piece together the puzzle of megafauna extinctions in Australia, which saw the disappearance of many large species. Understanding why Protemnodon vanished, despite their apparent advantages in size and adaptability, could provide crucial insights into the ecological dynamics and environmental shifts of their time.

The findings of this and future studies could potentially offer broader lessons about species survival and adaptation under changing environmental conditions.

Study significance

“It’s great to have some clarity on the identities of the species of Protemnodon,” says Flinders Professor \ Prideaux, a co-author of the research.

While the numbers and measurements are fascinating, it’s the image of these giants that’s truly captivating. Imagine encountering a 350-pound, high-hopping marsupial on the plains.

Or witnessing a massive, bear-like roo ambling slowly through a prehistoric forest. Projects like Dr. Kerr’s give us more than data; they fuel our imagination, bringing a bit of that long-lost world back to life.

“It feels so good to finally have it out in the world, after five years of research, 261 pages and more than 100,000 words. I really hope that it helps more studies of Protemnodon happen, so we can find out more of what these kangaroos were doing,” explained Dr Kerr.

“Living kangaroos are already such remarkable animals, so it’s amazing to think what these peculiar giant kangaroos could have been getting up to.”

The study is published in the journal Megataxa.


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