WASHINGTON – A fox-sized marsupial predator that roamed Australia from about 23 million to 12 million years ago had plenty of bite to go along with its bark. But while it was certainly fierce, it was no Tasmanian devil, Australia’s famously ferocious bantamweight brute.
Those were the findings reported recently by scientists who essentially brought the extinct mammal back to life in the virtual world to study its bite force and other qualities in comparison to other marsupial meat-eaters. They used 3-D computer software to reconstruct its skull — patterned after a nicely preserved fossil — and performed biomechanical analysis to see whether it was a champion chomper.
The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, assessed the biting and killing capabilities of a marsupial called Nimbacinus dicksoni that lived in northern Australia during the Miocene Epoch, a span of time populated by a wondrous array of mammals and other animals.
Nimbacinus dicksoni proved to be quite formidable and was probably able to hunt prey bigger than itself, the study found.
“It has the teeth of a true marsupial carnivore, with well-developed vertical slicing blades for cutting through meat and sinew,” said Stephen Wroe, a zoologist and paleontologist at Australia’s University of New England and one of the researchers. “It likely preyed upon small to medium-sized birds, frogs, lizards and snakes, as well as a wide range of marsupials.”
However, it fell short of the Tasmanian devil’s chomping power.
“It was certainly less powerful and less able to handle heavy loadings or forces than the Tasmanian devil. While it could probably have processed smaller bones, it did not have the capacity to crush and crack bone that the devil has — but then few creatures do,” Wroe said.
While placental mammals — rodents, bats, cats, dogs, cows, whales and many more, including people — dominated most of the world, Australia was dominated by marsupial mammals, which give birth to premature babies and then nourish them inside a pouch. Australia’s marsupials include kangaroos, wallabies, wombats and koalas, but also some fierce meat-eaters such as the Tasmanian devil and spotted-tailed quoll. The island continent once was home to many more carnivorous marsupials, including the wolf-sized Tasmanian tiger that went extinct in 1936.
Nimbacinus dicksoni, also called Dickson’s thylacine, was about the size of a small fox or very big domestic cat, weighed about 5 kg and had a face like a cross between a cat and an opossum. It was a smaller relative of the Tasmanian tiger.
The researchers compared the bite force of the two species to each other and to existing marsupial predators, including the Tasmanian devil, spotted-tailed quoll and northern quoll.
Nimbacinus dicksoni most closely matched the biting power of the spotted-tailed quoll, which has a pink nose and brown fur covered in white spots, even though the two species are not closely related, the researchers found.
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