OMG: a three-ton wombat!

July 6, 2011 • 9:55 am

According to both The Daily Mail and The Telegraph, Australian paleontologists digging in Queensland have found the fossil of a 14-foot-long, 3-ton wombat.  It’s in the genus DiprotodonThe Telegraph reports:

The diprotodon, about the size of a rhinoceros, was found on a remote cattle station in an area rich in the remains of prehistoric megafauna. The discovery of a virtually complete fossil makes it one of Australia’s most significant prehistoric discoveries.

“It was the biggest of them all – the biggest marsupial that ever lived on any continent,” one of the researchers, Professor Sue Hand, a palaeontologist at the University of New South Wales, told Australian Geographic.

How big was it? Bigger than this:

The skeleton, unlike others in the genus, was remarkably complete.  Here’s the excavation (photo from the Daily Mail):

According to the BBC, these were browsers who fed on trees and shrubs.  Their dentition surely shows that—look at these teeth! (photo from Wikipedia):

There are various theories explaining their extinction, including climate and, most intriguingly, predation by humans. That idea is based on one bone that appears to have been pierced by a spear.  The beasts also went extinct about the same time humans arrived in Australia: roughly 55,000 years ago.

54 thoughts on “OMG: a three-ton wombat!

  1. As much as everyone seems to love dinosaurs, I sure find these more recently extinct creatures fascinating…

    I was aware of this giant wombat, as well as giant kangaroos, but were there giant koalas back then as well?

    1. Found the answer to my own question on Wikipedia: Phascolarctos stirtoni was a large ancient koala species, though not really that much larger than today’s. I guess there were never any -giant- koalas.

      1. Well, it’s not like there’s much advantage for being an extremely large arboreal leaf eater.

      2. But I think it *was* the ancestor to the drop bear which still is alive in parts of Australia.

    2. There were amazing – & the carnivore marsupials as well, but to me the most amazing was the sabre toothed marsupial cat of South American (which had plenty of marsupials at one time) -
      Talk about the power of evolution to produce identical solutions to the same problems in widely separate lineages!

      Equally great, the giant ape-like lemurs of Madagascar –

      What we have lost in the last 100,000 years!

        1. Yes – as Australia Antarctica & s.America split they each had marsupials. Most went extinct in S.America after the land bridge to the north opened up – see Tim Flannery’s book Eternal Frontier, also The Monkey Bridge by David Rains Wallace.

          1. There’s apparently quite a few species left in Central and South America, including the Yapok, the world’s only fully aquatic marsupial (Richard Dawkins is fond of mentioning this one).

    3. Indeed, my favorite hall at the Natural History Museum in NYC is not the dinosaurs but the early mammals.

      “predation by humans”

      Self defense more like.


  2. Giant wombats, the stuff of nightmares.

    “It was the biggest of them all – the biggest marsupial that ever lived on any continent,”

    That we know of, I presume. Otherwise, that seems a non-scientific statement.

    1. No, No, I’m sure these weren’t the ones on the ark. They must have been shrunk or the babies that ended up on the ark just never got bigger. 🙂

      I was thinking of this when I heard about this and climate change on NPR this morning. It’s so simple, I’m sure creationists will grab onto it.

      1. By the way, the climate person they had on (might have been BBC) said that it was definitely climate change that caused their extinction. What the heck was wrong with that journalist?

        1. This is prehistory politics a la Kennewick Man. Blaming extinctions on ‘the natives’ (eg megafauna in Oz, or North America) has I think been seen as racist in some quarters in these post-modernist times (and perhaps it was on occasions) although it is very hard to distinguish all the possibilities. Probably it is hard to finger one culprit alone. The first Australians probably modified the habitat by burning but in “Australia’s Mammal Extinctions”, Chris Johnson talks of a/climate change, b/overkill & c/the power of late Pleistocene hunters.

          He says (Chapter 6) “the species that should have been most resilient to the stresses imposed by glacial climate were large-bodied herbivores.” The habitat should have been increasing when they went extinct due to the increase of shrubland & the new land at the continental margins in the LGM. If hunting were responsible then those most vulnerable would have been the slow reproducers, & ground dwellers in open habitats (more easily hunted). An example – the large 10-30kg slow breeding echidnas went extinct in Australia but survived in dense New Guinea forests.

          Finally the difficult one – the environmental power of the hunters. If you assume prey naivety then extinction can be very quick, but if the large fauna learnt to be wary then the mere presence of humans may have deterred them from using waterholes or prime habitat. But the models assume a high pressure of ‘blitzkrieg’ hunting, but “the archaeological record shows almost nothing of this.” A more likely scenario is selective hunting eg large mature breeding animals not yet at full size. In their model a comparatively low hunting rate would result in extinction in a short period (100s of years).

          “The chronological evidence supports direct human impact, not climate change or fire, as the cause of megafaunal extinctions. This evidence is strong, but perhaps not yet overwhelming.”

          Incidentally, In “The Future Eaters” Tim Flannery describes how in excavating a skull he accidentally broke through to see not the brain, but large ares of sinuses, so they did not have big brains.

          1. Another thing that occurred to me as I was thinking how minimal hunting could impact a species: if the species had sexual dimorphism, is it plausible that hunters may have targeted primarily only males or only females? It seems like that would have a faster and more dramatic effect on the species than more generalized hunting.

            1. If I recall (at work so cannot check the book) Johnson suggested that they may have targetted the younger ones that were perhaps slower to escape or less dangerous. See Mandrellian’s comment…

              1. Why does this computer revert to the Gravatar I foolishly created, so often?! Grrrr…

              2. Yes, that’s a rather obvious answer. I was wondering if perhaps diprotodonts had the same trend as most large terrestrial mammals with males tending to be larger and more powerful than females, leading to females being the preferred target of hunters, which might lead to a faster population crash. Probably not something that could be conclusively determined, though.

          2. Note that the burning comes after the megafauna have been eaten. This is because as they are no longer available to eat the vegetation, something else has to do the job, so that fresh, more nutritious grass can grow to feed the kangaroos and bring them in to be hunted. The trees also become more fire tolerant in the process. Many Australian plants need fire to germinate their seeds.

          3. Tim Flannery’s ‘Future Eaters’ is well worth a read if you’re interested in this. At the time it was immensely controversial because people seem to prefer to attribute the extinction to climate rather than the aborigines. I’m not sure whether this is due to wanting to maintain the ‘aborigines live in perfect balance with their environment’ trope (sure after living here for 50,000 years they were in balance, but that doesn’t mean their arrival in Australia didn’t substantially alter the environment), or just to deny that humans cause these sort of changes.

            Flannery’s book is now a little out of date – these days there’s a lot more evidence for the aboriginal arrival theory, eg:

            1. Well, one nice thing about current extinctions is that we won’t have to separate “humans” and “climate.”

            1. It took a while but is interesting though I am using the computer too much in the evenings & gave myself a headache!

      1. AWWWWWWWWWW – I’ll see your cute wombats and raise you one (or whatever thay say when they play poker) Baby Wombats
        Wombats are just the most impossibly cute and clumsy little pigbearswithpouches. I’m smitten.

  3. God damn ancient humans killing ALL THE COOL SHIT.

    I can deal with the fact that several generations before me killed the dodo. Cuz it was just a dodo. But giant wombats?! COME ON.

  4. “The beasts also went extinct about the same time humans arrived in Australia”


  5. And yet it’s still not the scariest thing to come out of Queensland – that honour will always belong to Ken Ham.

    1. Oh, I dunno – google “Pauline Hanson” and “Joh Bjelke-Petersen”. Both right-wing politicians: one’s a clueless racist who’d (possibly) make Sarah Palin raise an eyebrow; the other was a very cluey, conniving, corrupt & connected conman.

      Both were way scarier/embarrassing than Ol’ Hambo.

      And I wouldn’t be scared of Diprotodon. If he’s anything like today’s wombats, he’d be a deceptively fast runner and happy to just bugger off if threatened. I wouldn’t blame him either: Aborigines are to this day fond of roast wombat. Years ago my parents lived near the Nullarbor Plain in South Australia, about as out back as you can get. Every so often their Aborigine neighbours would go bush to hunt game and bring it back for barbecues; dad would then be left cleaning up things like wombat skulls that the dog had rescued from next door.

      Caveat: my mother’s experience working in a wildlife park revealed that a _cornered_ wombat can be downright stroppy & very happy to use its incisors to defend itself. I can only imagine how stroppy a trapped wombat the size of a Landrover could get.

  6. There is a display at the Queensland museum that has a diorama of a mega wombat carcas about to be eaten by a goanna that is also of the same scale. Scary stuff. No wonder our ancestors were paranoid and fearful of the natural world.

    Next time I go there I must get a photo 🙂

  7. I thought I read somewhere that the reason we had such large land animals in the past was that there was a higher oxygen content in the atmosphere. Is this true?

    1. I think it is with regard to the very distant past (i.e. the dinosaur era and before – I’m sure I’ll be corrected if wrong), but not as relatively recently (or to the same extent, at any rate) as 50-60 years ago when the Diprotodon was about and humans were making inroads into Australia. I think that in those recent times, availability of food and lack of serious threats was a more likely partial explanation for Diprotodon’s size than more oxygen (ditto today’s elephants).

      Diprotodon’s large size might well have been a factor that kept it relatively safe from predators until humans arrived, at which point its size would have made it a great big easy target for spears.

      As as aside: as mentioned above, it’s likely Australia’s recent (<60,000 y)) megafauna were hunted or out-competed to extinction by humans (Aborigines also introduced controlled burning to promote new growth and flush out game, which would have had other long term effects on the local wildlife and may even have changed our landscape dramatically). The thylacine (aka Tasmanian Tiger or "marsupial wolf"), though not a massive animal, populated the mainland and occupied the equivalent ecological niche of the wolf/coyote. When the dingo's ancestors accompanied humans to Australia, thylacines vanished rapidly thanks to the competition. However, it existed until living memory in Tasmania, the dingo having never arrived on the island to challenge its dominance. It's likely human behaviour had similar effects on many other ancient beasts.

      1. Chris Johnson’s book has a photo of a wall painting of a thylacine being speared, from Arnhem land, way oop north.

  8. Do you suppose it dug for roots with those teeth? I can’t see it fitting into a burrow! or maybe it chiselled the bark off trees with them like a beaver.

  9. The thing that sticks in my mind in this article is that the Wombat’s extinction was most likely due to the presence of humans. As many other animals have suffered this fate at the hand of human predation. This, as well as many other cases, such as the dodo, does not speak well of our kind. Many species today face a similar fate and there seems no remedy. Try as we might to stop this continuous cycle, humans expand increasingly into the habitats of many threatened animals. Soon, possibly within our children’s lifetimes, there may be no elephants or tigers in the wild.
    Does anyone have an answer as to how this problem can be solved?

    1. Pandemic disease?

      I was under the impression that it was pretty much accepted that human expansion wiped out the megafauna on many continents. Starting with the much-maligned Wikipedia:

      Pleistocene megafauna is the set of species of large animals — mammals, birds and reptiles — that lived on Earth during the Pleistocene epoch and became extinct in a Quaternary extinction event. These species appear to have died off as humans expanded out of Africa and southern Asia, the only continents that still retain a diversity of megafauna comparable to what was lost. The Americas, northern Eurasia, Australia and many larger Islands lost the vast majority of their larger and all of their largest mammals. Four theories have been given for these extinctions: hunting by the spreading humans,[1] climatic change, spreading disease, and an impact from an asteroid or comet,[2] a combination of which is also possible.

      Taking North America as an example:

      Pleistocene fauna in the Americas included giant sloths; short faced bears; giant polar bears; California tapirs; peccaries; the American lion; giant condors; Miracinonyx (“American cheetahs”, not true cheetahs); saber-toothed cats like Xenosmilus, Smilodon and the scimitar cat, Homotherium;[3] dire wolves; saiga; camelids such as two species of now extinct llamas and Camelops;[4] at least two species of bison; stag-moose; the shrub-ox and Harlan’s muskox; horses; mammoths and mastodons; and giant beavers as well as birds like teratorns. In contrast, today the largest North American land animal is the American bison.[5]

      Depressing as hell.

  10. Hmmm, after reading Dr. Coynes title to this post, the first question that popped into my head was ‘what is the flight velocty of a 3-ton Wombat?’
    I do not really understand what it is about brilliant scientists that I find slightly Pythonesque.

  11. Found the Xenosmilus H. incisor, 2 in. long Caloosahatchee river, PL. age. perfect serrated tooth shown to Gainsville Plt. dept. Wants to keep it and study it plus donate it of course. According to Gainsville, the most southern record ever, let alone the tooth is perfect. They said it’s the only tooth found from this animal that’s fully intact. Wish I could attach the hi-rez photos to share but can’t seem to copy and paste. Help please….

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