Prehistoric Marsupial Pictures and Profiles

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Meet the Marsupials of the Mesozoic and Cenozoic Eras

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.

02
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Alphadon

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). See an in-depth profile of Alphadon

03
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Borhyaena

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 (25-20 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.

 

04
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Didelphodon

didelphodon
A Didelphodon jawbone. 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. See an in-depth profile of Didelphodon

05
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Ekaltadeta

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.

 

06
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The Giant Short-Faced Kangaroo

procoptodon
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

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The Giant Wombat

diprotodon
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. See 10 Facts About the Giant Wombat

08
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Palorchestes

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-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 surprising number of 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--including its flexible proboscis and long front legs and claws--Palorchestes appears to have been the Australian equivalent of the South American Giant Sloth, ripping down and feasting on tough plants and trees.

 

09
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Phascolonus

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, it wasn't even the largest wombat of Pleistocene Australia. (That honor belongs to the truly enormous Diprotodon, the Giant Wombat, which weighed about two tons.) 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!

 

10
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Pig-Footed Bandicoot

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. See an in-depth profile of the Pig-Footed Bandicoot

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Protemnodon

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.

 

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Simosthenurus

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.

13
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Sinodelphys

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.

 

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Sthenurus

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.

 

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The Tasmanian Tiger

tasmanian tiger
The 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. See 10 Facts About the Tasmanian Tiger

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Thylacoleo

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. See an in-depth profile of Thylacoleo

17
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Thylacosmilus

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. See an in-depth profile of Thylacosmilus

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Zygomaturus

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.

 

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Strauss, Bob. "Prehistoric Marsupial Pictures and Profiles." ThoughtCo, Sep. 11, 2016, thoughtco.com/prehistoric-marsupial-pictures-and-profiles-4064020. Strauss, Bob. (2016, September 11). Prehistoric Marsupial Pictures and Profiles. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/prehistoric-marsupial-pictures-and-profiles-4064020 Strauss, Bob. "Prehistoric Marsupial Pictures and Profiles." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/prehistoric-marsupial-pictures-and-profiles-4064020 (accessed May 22, 2018).