Scientists Discover Bizarre Group Of Snail-Eating Marsupials In Australia

Posted: May 27 2016, 9:38pm CDT | by , Updated: May 28 2016, 9:29pm CDT, in News | Latest Science News

 
Scientists Discover Bizarre Group of Snail-Eating Marsupials in Australia
An artist's impression of Malleodectes from Riversleigh, eating a snail. Credit: Peter Schouten

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The entirely new family of extinct marsupials lived 15 million years ago and fed on snails.

Ancient Earth was filled with weird animals and one of them was previously unknown snail-eating marsupials.

The fossil remains of the entirely new group of extinct marsupial family were unearthed in Riversleigh World Heritage Fossil Site in northern Australia. The ferret-sized creature lived back 15 million years ago in the area of temperate lowland forests.

The new group has been named Malleodectidae – a combination of Latin and Greek words - reflecting huge, hammer-like premolars that enabled them to eat snails wholly despite of their strongly built shells.

“Malleodectes mirabilis was a bizarre mammal, as strange in its own way as a koala or kangaroo,” said lead researcher Mike Archer from University of New South Wales.

“Uniquely among mammals, it appears to have had an insatiable appetite for escargot – snails in the whole shell. Its most striking feature was a huge, extremely powerful, hammer-like premolar that would have been able to crack and then crush the strongest snail shells in the forest.”

Isolated bits and pieces of this strange group of animal have been discovered over the years but the unique feature, which sets them apart from the rest of marsupials, was not released until the recent discovery when researchers found a well-preserved jawbone of a marsupial specimen in a Middle Miocene Cave. The specimen was a juvenile with perfectly intact baby teeth while its adult teeth were about to emerge from the jaws.

The fossil was encased in limestone. Researchers used acid to remove it from the sedimentary rock and applied advanced techniques to analyze it. Fossil evidence revealed that the animal was a relative to modern Tasmanian devils and Tasmanian tigers that do not exist anymore.

The cave in Riversleigh was discovered in 1990 and has yield a huge number of fossils, spanning the last 25 million years. These fossils have provided unique insight into the evolution and origin of Australian fauna such as kangaroos, koalas and wombats. Researchers believe that the unique creature could not respond to the rapid climate change and died out some time around 10 million years ago.

Researchers also explain what caused the premature death of the particular specimen found in the cave. They suggest that the young marsupial could have been clinging to the back of its mother who entered the cave to hunt for snails when the rocks around the cave suddenly fallen and didn’t allowed them to make their way back.

Professor Suzanne Hand, one of the researchers involved in the study said. “Many other animals that lived in this lush forest met a similar fate with their skeletons accumulating one on top of another for perhaps thousands of years, until the cave became filled with palaeontological treasures.”

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