10 Facts About Diprotodon, the Giant Wombat

01
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Meet Diprotodon, the Three-Ton Prehistoric Wombat

diprotodon
Diprotodon, the Giant Wombat. Nobu Tamura

Diprotodon, also known as the Giant Wombat, was the largest marsupial that ever existed, adult males measuring 10 feet from head to tail and weighing upward of three tons. On the following slides, you'll discover 10 fascinating facts about this extinct megafauna mammal of Pleistocene Australia. (See also Why Do Animals Go Extinct? and a slideshow of 10 Recently Extinct Marsupials.)

02
of 11

Diprotodon Was the Largest Marsupial that Ever Lived

diprotodon
Sameer Prehistorica

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 every 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!

03
of 11

Diprotodon Ranged Across the Expanse of Australia

diprotodon
Wikimedia Commons

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-extant Eastern Gray Kangaroo, which at 200 pounds, max, is a mere shadow of its gigantic prehistoric cousin.

04
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Many Diprotodon Herds Perished from Drought

diprotodon
Dmitry Bogdanov

As big as Australia is, it can also be punishingly dry--almost every bit 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 the lakes and drowned. Extreme drought conditions would also explain occasional fossil discoveries of clustered-together Diprotodon juveniles and aged herd members.

05
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Diprotodon Males Were Larger than the Females

diprotodon
Wikimedia Commons

Over the course of the nineteenth 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: that is, there was one species of Giant Wombat (Diprotodon optatum), the males of which were bigger than the females, at all growth stages. (By the way, D. optatum was named by the famous English naturalist Richard Owen in 1838.)

06
of 11

Diprotodon Was on Thylacoleo's Lunch Menu

diprotodon
Diprotodon being attacked by Thylacoleo. Roman Uchytel

A full-grown, three-ton Giant Wombat would have been virtually immune from predation--but the same couldn't be said for Diprotodon babies and juveniles, which were significantly smaller. 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. And of course, toward the start of the modern era, the Giant Wombat was also targeted by the first human settlers of Australia.

07
of 11

Diprotodon Was an Ancestor of the Modern Wombat

wombat
A modern wombat. Wikimedia Commons

Let's pause in our celebration of Diprotodon and turn our attention 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 were direct descendants of the Giant Wombat, and the cuddly but vicious Koala Bear (which is unrelated to other bears) counts as a grand-nephew. (As adorable as they are, larger wombats have been known to attack humans, sometimes charging at their feet and toppling them over!)

08
of 11

The Giant Wombat Was a Confirmed Vegetarian

diprotodon
public domain

Aside from the predators listed in slide #6, 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 salt bushes (which grow on the fringes of those dangerous salt lakes referenced in slide #4) 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.

09
of 11

Diprotodon Coexisted with the Earliest Human Settlers of Australia

aborigines
public domain

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!

10
of 11

Diprotodon May Have Been the Inspiration for the "Bunyip"

bunyip
A fanciful depiction of the Bunyip. Wikimedia Commons

Although the first human settlers of Australia undoubtedly hunted and ate the Giant Wombat, there was an element of god-worship as well, similar to how the Homo sapiens of Europe idolized the Woolly Mammoth. Rock paintings have been discovered in Queensland that may (or may not) depict Diprotodon herds, and Diprotodon may have been the inspiration for the Bunyip, a mythical beast that even today (according to some Aboriginal tribes) lives in the swamps, riverbeds and watering holes of Australia.

11
of 11

No One Is Quite Sure Why the Giant Wombat Went Extinct

diprotodon
Wikimedia Commons

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.

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Strauss, Bob. "10 Facts About Diprotodon, the Giant Wombat." ThoughtCo, Jun. 21, 2017, thoughtco.com/facts-about-diprotodon-the-giant-wombat-1093327. Strauss, Bob. (2017, June 21). 10 Facts About Diprotodon, the Giant Wombat. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/facts-about-diprotodon-the-giant-wombat-1093327 Strauss, Bob. "10 Facts About Diprotodon, the Giant Wombat." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/facts-about-diprotodon-the-giant-wombat-1093327 (accessed May 27, 2018).