Gentle bilby had 'killer' ancestor

September 1, 2010 By Bob Beale
Exceptional fossil - 20 million years old

( -- The gentle rabbit-like bilby - Australia's stand-in for the Easter bunny - had an ancient relative that was a far more fearsome little beast, a new study has found.

The gentle rabbit-like bilby - Australia's stand-in for the Easter bunny - had an ancient relative that was a far more fearsome little beast, a new study has found.

Although modern bilbies are mild-mannered creatures that eat mainly plants and insects, one 20 million years ago had the stout , muscular jaws and flesh-tearing teeth of a small but formidable predator, according to a paper to be in the .

The finding is based on an almost complete skull of the fossil marsupial, which has been named Galadi speciosus, discovered a team of University of New South Wales scientists at the Riversleigh World Heritage Area fossil site in northern Queensland.

"The preservation of the skull is exceptional - almost as good as for a modern animal - and this gives us a lot of information about Galadi’s anatomy, relationships and probable lifestyle,’ says Dr Kenny Travouillon, of the UNSW School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, who is lead author of the study.

"Features of the skull and teeth of Galadi show that it is a member of the same group of small marsupials including the modern bilby and bandicoots: they are found only in Australia and New Guinea and mostly weigh less than five kilograms."

Co-author Dr Robin Beck, from the American Museum of Natural History, points out that while Galadi probably weighed only about one kilogram, it appears to have been specialised to hunt for vertebrate prey.

"Compared to modern bandicoots, Galadi has a short snout and very robust skull, with big areas for the attachment of : it’s the pitbull of the bandicoot world," says Dr Beck.

"In terms of overall skull shape, it’s more like living carnivorous marsupials - such as quolls - which feed mainly on lizards, birds and , so we think Galadi probably had a similar diet."

Today, bilbies are found in Australia's western deserts, but Galadi and other members of its marsupial group appear to have been the dominant small predators in the rainforests that covered northern Australia 20 million years ago. Today, that niche is filled by a different marsupial group, the dasyurids, which include quolls, marsupial "mice" and the Tasmanian devil.

"We’re looking at Riversleigh and other Australian fossil sites to work out exactly when and why this replacement occurred," says Dr Yamila Gurovich, another UNSW co-author of the study.

Explore further: New Fossil Find in New Mexico Named After Artist Georgia O'Keeffe

Related Stories

Marsupial lion tops African lion in fight to death

January 17, 2008

Pound for pound, Australia’s extinct marsupial lion (Thylacoleo carnifex) would have made mince meat of today’s African lion (Panthera leo) had the two big hyper-carnivores ever squared off in a fight to the death, according ...

Researchers reveal ancient origins of modern opossum

December 16, 2009

A University of Florida researcher has co-authored a study tracing the evolution of the modern opossum back to the extinction of the dinosaurs and finding evidence to support North America as the center of origin for all ...

Loud and lazy but didn't chew gum: Ancient koalas

December 19, 2009

( -- Skull fragments of prehistoric koalas from the Riversleigh rainforests of millions of year ago suggest they shared the modern koala's "lazy" lifestyle and ability to produce loud "bellowing" calls to attract ...

Remarkable fossil cave shows how ancient marsupials grew

July 14, 2010

( -- The discovery of a remarkable 15-million-year-old Australian fossil limestone cave packed with even older animal bones has revealed almost the entire life cycle of a large prehistoric marsupial, from ...

Recommended for you

The dark side of Nobel prizewinning research

October 4, 2015

Think of the Nobel prizes and you think of groundbreaking research bettering mankind, but the awards have also honoured some quite unhumanitarian inventions such as chemical weapons, DDT and lobotomies.

How much for that Nobel prize in the window?

October 3, 2015

No need to make peace in the Middle East, resolve one of science's great mysteries or pen a masterpiece: the easiest way to get yourself a Nobel prize may be to buy one.

Search for Egypt's Nefertiti gains new momentum (Update)

September 29, 2015

The search for ancient Egypt's Queen Nefertiti in an alleged hidden chamber in King Tut's tomb gained new momentum as Egypt's Antiquities Minister said Tuesday he is now more convinced a queen's tomb may lay hidden behind ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.