10 Facts About Diprotodon, the Giant Wombat

Diprotodon, also known as the giant wombat, was the largest marsupial that ever existed. Adult males measured up to 10 feet from head to tail and weighed upward of three tons. Discover 10 fascinating facts about this extinct megafauna mammal of Pleistocene Australia.

01
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The Largest Marsupial That Ever Lived

Skeleton of the Diprotodon next to a human being at a museum.

Ryan Somma/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

During the Pleistocene epoch, marsupials (like virtually every other kind of animal on Earth) grew to enormous sizes. Measuring 10 feet long from snout to tail and weighing up to three tons, Diprotodon was the largest pouched mammal that ever lived, outclassing even the giant short-faced kangaroo and the marsupial lion. In fact, the rhinoceros-sized giant wombat (as it's also known) was one of the largest plant-eating mammals, placental or marsupial, of the Cenozoic Era.

02
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They Once Ranged Across Australia

Digital rendering of Diprotodon in the wilds of prehistoric Australia.

Nobu Tamura/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0

Australia is a huge continent, the deep interior of which is still somewhat mysterious to its modern human inhabitants. Amazingly, Diprotodon remains have been discovered across the expanse of this country, from New South Wales to Queensland to the remote "Far North" region of South Australia. The continental distribution of the giant wombat is similar to that of the still-living eastern gray kangaroo. At maximum, the eastern gray kangaroo grows to 200 pounds and is a mere shadow of its gigantic prehistoric cousin.

03
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Many Herds Perished From Drought

The skeleton of a Diprotodon half buried in the ground.

Jason Baker/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

As big as Australia is, it can also be punishingly dry — almost as much two million years ago as it is today. Many Diprotodon fossils have been discovered in the vicinity of shrinking, salt-covered lakes. Evidently, the giant wombats were migrating in search of water, and some of them crashed through the crystalline surface of lakes and drowned. Extreme drought conditions would also explain occasional fossil discoveries of clustered Diprotodon juveniles and aged herd members.

04
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Males Were Larger Than Females

Diprotodon statues at Kings Park in Perth, Australia.

User:Moondyne/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0, 2.5, 2.0, 1.0

Over the course of the 19th century, paleontologists named a half-dozen separate Diprotodon species, differentiated from one another by their size. Today, these size discrepancies are understood not as speciation, but as sexual differentiation. There was one species of giant wombat (Diprotodon optatum), the males of which were bigger than the females at all growth stages. Giant wombats, D. optatum, were named by the famous English naturalist Richard Owen in 1838.

05
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Diprotodon Was on the Lunch Menu

Diprotodon being attacked by Thylacoleo digital rendering.

roman uchytel/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0

A full-grown, three-ton giant wombat would have been virtually immune from predators — but the same couldn't be said for Diprotodon babies and juveniles, which were significantly smaller. Young Diprotodon was almost certainly preyed on by Thylacoleo, the marsupial lion, and it may also have made a tasty snack for the giant monitor lizard Megalania as well as the Quinkana, a plus-sized Australian crocodile. At the beginning of the modern era, the giant wombat was also targeted by the first human settlers of Australia.

06
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It Was an Ancestor of the Modern Wombat

Wombat walking along the ground.

LuvCoffee/Pixabay

Let's pause in the celebration of Diprotodon and turn to the modern wombat: a small (no more than three feet long), stubby-tailed, short-legged marsupial of Tasmania and southeastern Australia. Yes, these tiny, almost comical furballs are direct descendants of the giant wombat. The cuddly but vicious koala bear (which is unrelated to other bears) counts as a grand-nephew of the giant wombat. As adorable as they are, larger wombats have been known to attack humans, sometimes charging at their feet and toppling them over.

07
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The Giant Wombat Was a Confirmed Vegetarian

Diprotodon exhibit at Naracoorte Caves National Park, Australia.

Anonymous/Wikimedia Commons

Aside from the predators listed in slide #5, Pleistocene Australia was a relative paradise for large, peaceful, plant-munching marsupials. Diprotodon seems to have been an indiscriminate consumer of all kinds of plants, ranging from saltbushes (which grow on the fringes of the dangerous salt lakes referenced in slide #3) to leaves and grasses. This would help to explain the giant wombat's continent-wide distribution, as various populations managed to subsist on whatever vegetable matter was at hand.

08
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It Coexisted With the Earliest Human Settlers in Australia

Person standing with a Diprotodon statue in the park.

Alpha/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

As far as paleontologists can tell, the first human settlers landed on Australia about 50,000 years ago (at the conclusion of what must have been a long, arduous, and extremely frightening boat trip, perhaps taken accidentally). Although these early humans would have been concentrated on the Australian coastline, they must have come into occasional contact with the giant wombat and figured out rather quickly that a single, three-ton herd alpha could feed an entire tribe for a week.

09
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It May Have Been the Inspiration for the Bunyip

Diprotodon skeleton at the French National Museum of Natural History.

Ghedoghedo/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0

Although the first human settlers of Australia undoubtedly hunted and ate the giant wombat, there was an element of worship as well. This is similar to the way Homo sapiens of Europe idolized the woolly mammoth. Rock paintings have been discovered in Queensland that may (or may not) depict Diprotodon herds. Diprotodon may have been the inspiration for the bunyip. This is a mythical beast that, according to some Aboriginal tribes, lives in the swamps, riverbeds, and watering holes of Australia even today.

10
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No One Is Sure Why It Went Extinct

Diprotodon statue close up.

Alpha/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Since it disappeared about 50,000 years ago, it seems like an open-and-shut case that Diprotodon was hunted to extinction by early humans. However, that's far from the accepted view among paleontologists, who also suggest climate change and/or deforestation as the cause of the giant wombat's demise. Most likely, it was a combination of all three, as Diprotodon's territory was eroded by gradual warming, its accustomed vegetation slowly withered, and the last surviving herd members were easily picked off by hungry Homo sapiens.