Recently Extinct Marsupials

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These Marsupials Will Never Hop Again

giant wombat
The Giant Wombat (Wikimedia Commons).

You might be under the impression that Australia is teeming with marsupials--and, yes, tourists can certainly get their fill of kangaroos, wallabies and koala bears. But the fact is that pouched mammals are less common Down Under than they used to be, and many species have vanished during historical times, well after the age of European settlement. Here's a list of 10 marsupials that went extinct under the watch of human civilization.

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The Broad-Faced Potoroo

broad-faced potoroo
The Broad-Faced Potoroo (John Gould).

As Australian marsupials go, Potoroos aren't nearly as well-known as kangaroos, wallabies, and wombats--perhaps because they've dwindled to the brink of oblivion. Gilbert's Potoroo, the Long-Footed Potoroo, and the Long-Nosed Potoroo are still extant, but the Broad-Faced Potoroo hasn't been glimpsed since the late 19th century and is presumed extinct. This foot-long, long-tailed marsupial looked unnervingly like a rat, and it was already diminishing in numbers before the first European settlers arrived in Australia. We can thank the naturalist John Gould--who depicted the Broad-Faced Potoroo in 1844 and painted many of the other marsupials on this list--for much of what we know about this long-gone creature.

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The Crescent Nail-Tail Wallaby

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The Crescent Nail-Tail Wallaby (John Gould).

As with Potoroos (previous slide), Australia's Nail-Tail Wallabies are critically endangered, with two species struggling for survival and a third that has been extinct since the mid-20th century. Like its extant relatives, the Northern Nail-Tail Wallaby and the Bridled Nail-Tail Wallaby, the Crescent Nail-Tail Wallaby was distinguished by the spike at the end of its tail, which presumably helped make up for its diminutive size (only about 15 inches tall). Vanishingly rare to begin with, the Crescent Nail-Tail Wallaby apparently succumbed to predation by the Red Fox, which was introduced to Australia by British settlers in the early 19th century so they could indulge in the patrician sport of fox hunting.

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The Desert Rat-Kangaroo

desert rat kangaroo
The Desert Rat-Kangaroo (John Gould).

The Desert Rat-Kangaroo has the dubious distinction of being declared extinct not once, but twice. This bulbous, foot-long marsupial, which indeed looked like a cross between a rat and a kangaroo, was discovered in the early 1840's and memorialized on canvas by the naturalist John Gould. The Desert Rat-Kangaroo then promptly disappeared from view for almost 100 years, only to be rediscovered deep in the central Australian desert in the early 1930's. While diehards hold out hope that this marsupial has somehow escaped oblivion (it was officially declared extinct in 1994), it's more likely that predation by Red Foxes eradicated it from the face of the earth.

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Recently Extinct Marsupial #4 - The Eastern Hare-Wallaby

eastern hare wallaby
The Eastern Hare-Wallaby (John Gould).

As sad as it is that it's gone, it's something of a miracle that the Eastern Hare-Wallaby was ever discovered in the first place. This pint-sized marsupial foraged exclusively at night, lived inside prickly bushes, had drab fur, and, when sighted, was capable of running at top speed for hundreds of yards at a stretch and jumping over a full-grown man's head. Like so many extinct marsupials of 19th-century Australia, the Eastern Hare-Wallaby was described (and depicted on canvas) by John Gould; unlike its relatives, though, we can't trace its demise to agricultural development or the depredations of Red Foxes (it was more likely rendered extinct by cats, or trampling of its grasslands by sheep and cattle).

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The Giant Short-Faced Kangaroo

The giant Short-Faced Kangaroo (Government of Australia).

During the Pleistocene epoch, Australia was rife with monstrously sized marsupials--kangaroos, wallabies and wombats that could have given the Saber-Tooth Tiger a run for its money (if, that is, they had shared the same continent). The Giant Short-Faced Kangaroo (genus name Procoptodon) stood about ten feet tall and weighed in the neighborhood of 500 pounds, or about twice as much as an average NFL linebacker (we don't, however, know if this marsupial was capable of hopping to a comparably impressive height). Like other megafauna mammals worldwide, the Giant Short-Faced Kangaroo went extinct shortly after the last Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago, possibly as the result of human predation.

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The Giant Wombat

giant wombat
The Giant Wombat (Wikimedia Commons).

As big as the Giant Short-Faced Kangaroo (previous slide) was, it was no match for the Giant Wombat, Diprotodon, which was as long as a luxury car and weighed upward of two tons. Fortunately for other Australian megafauna, the Giant Wombat was a devoted vegetarian (it subsisted exclusively on the Salt Bush, which was home thousands of years later to the similarly extinct Eastern Hare-Wallaby) and not particularly bright: many individuals fossilized after they carelessly fell through the surface of salt-encrusted lakes. Like its Giant Kangaroo pal, the Giant Wombat went extinct at the cusp of the modern era, its disappearance hastened by hungry Aborigines wielding sharp spears.

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The Lesser Bilby

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The Lesser Bilby (John Gould).

If the Ice Age film franchise ever changes it setting to Australia, the Lesser Bilby would be a potential breakout star. This tiny marsupial was equipped with long, adorable ears, a comically pointed snout, and a tail that took up over half its total length; presumably the producers would take some liberties with its ornery disposition (the Lesser Bilby was notorious for snapping and hissing at any humans who attempted to handle it). Unfortunately, this desert-dwelling, omnivorous critter was no match for the cats and foxes introduced to Australia by European settlers, and went extinct by the mid-20th century. (The Lesser Bilby is survived by the slightly larger Greater Bilby, which itself is critically endangered.)

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The Pig-Footed Bandicoot

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The Pig-Footed Bandicoot (John Gould).

As you've probably surmised by now, Australian naturalists are partial to amusingly hyphenated names when identifying their native fauna. The Pig-Footed Bandicoot was equipped with rabbit-like ears, an opossum-like snout, and spindly legs capped by strangely toed (though not especially porcine) feet, which gave it a comical appearance when hopping, walking or running. Perhaps because of its bizarre appearance, this was one of the few marsupials to provoke remorse among European settlers, who at least made a token effort to save it from extinction in the early 20th century. (One intrepid explorer obtained two specimens from an Aborigine tribe, then was compelled to eat one on his arduous journey back!)

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The Tasmanian Tiger

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The Tasmanian Tiger (John Gould).

The Tasmanian Tiger was the last in a line of predatory marsupials that ranged across Australia, New Zealand, and Tasmania during the Pleistocene Epoch, and it may well have preyed on the Giant Short-Faced Kangaroo and the Giant Wombat, described above. The Thylacine, as it's also known, dwindled in numbers on the Australian continent thanks to competition from aboriginal humans, and by the time it decamped to the island of Tasmania it was easy prey for outraged farmers, which blamed it for the decimation of their sheep and chickens. It may yet be possible to resurrect the Tasmanian Tiger via the controversial process of de-extinction; whether a cloned population would prosper or perish is a matter of debate.  

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Recently Extinct Marsupial #10 - The Toolache Wallaby

John Gould

If you've ever looked at a kangaroo close up, you may have come to the conclusion that it's not a very attractive animal. That's what made the Toolache Wallaby so special: this marsupial possessed an unusually streamlined build, soft, luxurious, banded fur, relatively petite hind feet, and a patrician-looking snout. Unfortunately, the same qualities made the Toolache Wallaby attractive to hunters, and relentless human predation was exacerbated by the encroachment of civilization on this marsupial's natural habitat. In the early 20th century, naturalists realized that the Toolache Wallaby was critically endangered, but a "rescue mission" failed with the death of four captured individuals.