Prehistoric Marsupial Pictures and Profiles

Millions of years ago, pouched mammals were much bigger and more diverse than they are today and they lived in South America as well as Australia. On the following slides, you'll find pictures and detailed profiles of over a dozen prehistoric and recently extinct marsupials, ranging from Alphadon to Zygomaturus.

01
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Alphadon

alphadon
Dinosaur Toys

The late Cretaceous Alphadon is known mainly by its teeth, which peg it as one of the earliest marsupials (the non-placental mammals represented today by Australian kangaroos and koala bears).

02
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Borhyaena

borhyaena
Wikimedia Commons
  • Name: Borhyaena (Greek for "strong hyena"); pronounced BORE-hi-EE-nah
  • Habitat: Woodlands of South America
  • Historical Epoch: Late Oligocene-Early Miocene (25 to 20 million years ago)
  • Size and Weight: About five feet long and 200 pounds
  • Diet: Meat
  • Distinguishing Characteristics: Hyena-like head; long tail; flat feet

Although it sounds like it should be directly related to modern hyenas, Borhyaena was actually a large, predatory marsupial of South America (which witnessed more than its share of these pouched mammals 20 or 25 million years ago). To judge by its odd, flat-footed posture and oversized jaws studded with numerous bone-crushing teeth, Borhyaena was an ambush predator that jumped on its prey from the high branches of trees (in the same style as non-marsupial saber-toothed cats). As fearsome as Borhyaena and its kin were, they were eventually replaced in their South American ecosystem by large, predatory prehistoric birds like Phorusrhacos and Kelenken.

03
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Didelphodon

didelphodon
Wikimedia Commons

Didelphodon, which lived in late Cretaceous North America alongside the last of the dinosaurs, is one of the earliest opossum ancestors yet known; today, opossums are the only marsupials native to North America.

04
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Ekaltadeta

ekaltadeta
Nobu Tamura
  • Name: Ekaltadeta; pronounced ee-KAL-tah-DAY-ta
  • Habitat: Plains of Australia
  • Historical Epoch: Eocene-Oligocene (50-25 million years ago)
  • Size and Weight: Undisclosed
  • Diet: Probably omnivorous
  • Distinguishing Characteristics: Small size; prominent fangs (on some species)

Not the most easily pronounced prehistoric mammal, by all rights Ekaltadeta should be better-known than it is: who can resist a tiny, meat-eating (or at least omnivorous) rat-kangaroo ancestor, some species of which were equipped with prominent fangs? Unfortunately, all we know about Ekaltadeta consists of two skulls, widely separated in geologic time (one from the Eocene epoch, another from the Oligocene) and sporting different features (one skull is equipped with the above-mentioned fangs, while the other has cheek teeth shaped like little buzzsaws). Ekaltedeta, by the way, seems to have been a different creature from the Fangaroo, another 25-million-year-old fanged marsupial that briefly made headlines (and then disappeared) over a decade ago.

05
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The Giant Short-Faced Kangaroo

procoptodon
Government of Australia

Procoptodon, also known as the Giant Short-Faced Kangaroo, was the biggest example of its breed that ever lived, measuring about 10 feet tall and weighing in the neighborhood of 500 pounds. See an in-depth profile of the Giant Short-Faced Kangaroo

06
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The Giant Wombat

diprotodon
Nobu Tamura

The enormous Diprotodon (also known as the Giant Wombat) weighed as much as a large rhinoceros, and it looked a bit like one from far away, especially if you weren't wearing your glasses.

07
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Palorchestes

palorchestes

 Victoria Museum

  • Name: Palorchestes (Greek for "ancient leaper"); pronounced PAL-or-KESS-teez
  • Habitat: Plains of Australia
  • Historical Epoch: Pliocene-Modern (5 million to 10,000 years ago)
  • Size and Weight: About eight feet long and 500 pounds
  • Diet: Plants
  • Distinguishing Characteristics: Large size; proboscis on snout

Palorchestes is one of the giant mammals that received their names under false pretenses: when he first described it, the famous paleontologist Richard Owen thought he was dealing with a prehistoric kangaroo, hence the Greek meaning of the name he bestowed, "giant leaper." As it turns out, though, Palorchestes wasn't a kangaroo but a large marsupial closely related to Diprotodon, better known as the Giant Wombat. Judging by the details of its anatomy, Palorchestes appears to have been the Australian equivalent of the South American Giant Sloth, ripping down and feasting on tough plants and trees.

08
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Phascolonus

phascolonus
Nobu Tamura
  • Name: Phascolonus; pronounced FASS-coe-LOAN-uss
  • Habitat: Plains of Australia
  • Historical Epoch: Pleistocene (2 million-50,000 years ago)
  • Size and Weight: About six feet long and 500 pounds
  • Diet: Plants
  • Distinguishing Characteristics: Large size; bear-like build

Here's a surprising fact about Phascolonus: not only wasn't this six-foot-long, 500-pound marsupial the largest wombat that ever lived, but it also wasn't even the largest wombat of Pleistocene Australia. Like other megafauna mammals around the world, both Phascolonus and Diprotodon went extinct before the start of the modern era; in the case of Phascolonus, its demise may have been quickened by predation, as witness the remains of a Phascolonus individual found in close proximity to a Quinkana!

09
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Pig-Footed Bandicoot

pig-footed bandicoot
John Gould

The Pig-Footed Bandicoot possessed long, rabbit-like ears, a narrow, opossum-like snout, and exceptionally spindly legs with strangely toed feet, which gave it a comical appearance when running.

10
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Protemnodon

protemnodon
Nobu Tamura
  • Name: Protemnodon (Greek for "before the cutting tooth"); pronounced pro-TEM-no-don
  • Habitat: Plains of Australia
  • Historical Period: Pleistocene (2 million-50,000 years ago)
  • Size and Weight: Up to six feet tall and 250 pounds
  • Diet: Probably omnivorous
  • Distinguishing Characteristics: Slender build; small tail; long hind legs

Australia is a case study in prehistoric gigantism: virtually every mammal that roams the continent today had a plus-sized ancestor lurking somewhere back in the Pleistocene epoch, including kangaroos, wombats, and, yes, wallabies. Not a lot is known about Protemnodon, otherwise known as the Giant Wallaby, except as regards its exceptional size; at six feet tall and 250 pounds, the largest species could have been a match for an NFL defensive lineman. As to whether this million-year-old ancestral marsupial actually behaved like a wallaby, as well as looking like one, that's an issue that hinges on future fossil discoveries.

11
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Simosthenurus

simosthenurus
Wikimedia Commons
  • Name: Simosthenurus; pronounced SIE-moe-STHEN-your-uss
  • Habitat: Plains of Australia
  • Historical Epoch: Pleistocene (2 million-50,000 years ago)
  • Size and Weight: About six feet tall and 200 pounds
  • Diet: Plants
  • Distinguishing Characteristics: Robust build; long, powerful arms and legs

Procoptodon, the Giant Short-Faced Kangaroo, gets all the press, but this wasn't the only plus-sized marsupial hopping around Australia during the Pleistocene epoch; there were also the comparably sized Sthenurus and the slightly smaller (and comparatively more obscure) Simosthenurus, which only tipped the scales at about 200 pounds. Like its larger cousins, Simosthenurus was powerfully built, and its long, muscular arms were adapted for pulling down the high branches of trees and feasting on their leaves. This prehistoric kangaroo was also equipped with larger-than-average nasal passages, a hint that it may have signaled to others of its kind with grunts and bellows.

12
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Sinodelphys

sinodelphys
H. Kyoht Luterman
  • Name: Sinodelphys (Greek for "Chinese opossum"); pronounced SIGH-no-DELF-iss
  • Habitat: Woodlands of Asia
  • Historical Period: Early Cretaceous (130 million years ago)
  • Size and Weight: About six inches long and a few ounces
  • Diet: Insects
  • Distinguishing Characteristics: Small size; opossum-like teeth

A specimen of Sinodelphys had the good fortune to be preserved in the Liaoning quarry in China, a source of numerous feathered dinosaur fossils (as well as the remains of other animals of the early Cretaceous period). Sinodelphys is the earliest mammal known to have possessed distinctly marsupial, as opposed to placental, characteristics; in particular, the shape and arrangement of this mammal's teeth recall modern-day opossums. Like other mammals of the Mesozoic Era, Sinodelphys probably spent most of its life high up in trees, where it could avoid being eaten by tyrannosaurs and other large theropods.

13
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Sthenurus

sthenurus
Nobu Tamura
  • Name: Sthenurus (Greek for "strong tail"); pronounced sthen-OR-us
  • Habitat: Plains of Australia
  • Historical Epoch: Late Pleistocene (500,000-10,000 years ago)
  • Size and Weight: About 10 feet tall and 500 pounds
  • Diet: Plants
  • Distinguishing Characteristics: Large size; powerful legs; strong tail

Yet another creature named by the famous 19th-century paleontologist Richard Owen, Sthenurus was for all intents and purposes a dino-kangaroo: A heavily muscled, short-necked, strong-tailed, 10-foot-tall plains hopper possessing one long toe on each of its feet. However, like its comparably sized contemporary, Procoptodon (better known as the Giant Short-Faced Kangaroo), the imposing Sthenurus was a strict vegetarian, subsisting on the leafy greens of late Pleistocene Australia. It's possible, but not proven, that this megafauna mammal has left living descendants in the form of the now-dwindling Banded Hare Wallaby.

14
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The Tasmanian Tiger

tasmanian tiger
H.C. Richter

To judge by its stripes, the Tasmanian Tiger (also known as the Thylacine) seems to have preferred forest living, and it was an opportunistic predator, feeding on smaller marsupials as well as birds and possibly reptiles.

15
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Thylacoleo

thylacoleo
Wikimedia Commons

Some paleontologists believe Thylacoleo's unique anatomy, including its long, retractable claws, semi-opposable thumbs, and heavily muscled forelimbs, allowed it to drag carcasses high up into the branches of trees.

16
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Thylacosmilus

thylacosmilus
American Museum of Natural History

Like modern kangaroos, Thylacosmilus raised its young in pouches, and its parental skills may have been more developed than those of its saber-toothed relatives to the north.

17
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Zygomaturus

zygomaturus

 Wikimedia Commons

  • Name: Zygomaturus (Greek for "large cheekbones"); pronounced ZIE-go-mah-TORE-us
  • Habitat: Shores of Australia
  • Historical Epoch: Pleistocene (2 million-50,000 years ago)
  • Size and Weight: About eight feet long and half a ton
  • Diet: Marine plants
  • Distinguishing Characteristics: Large size; blunt snout; quadrupedal posture

Also known as the "Marsupial Rhino," Zygomaturus wasn't quite as big as a modern rhinoceros, nor did it approach the size of other giant marsupials of the Pleistocene epoch (like the truly enormous Diprotodon). This thick-set, half-ton herbivore prowled the shores of Australia, dredging up and eating soft marine vegetation like reeds and sedges, and occasionally venturing inland when it happened to follow the course of a winding river. Paleontologists are still unsure about Zygomaturus' social habits; this prehistoric mammal may have led a solitary lifestyle, or it may have browsed in small herds.