A wombat-like marsupial that was as big as a bear and lived in Australia 25 million years ago during the late Oligocene Period has been identified as a new species. It’s called Mukupirna nambensis (from the Aboriginal words muku which means “bones” and pirna which means “big”) and it is one of the oldest Australian marsupials that have ever been discovered.
In fact, Mukupirna nambensis is the only genus and species of an entirely new family called Mukupirnidae which is part of the vombatiform taxonomic group that includes species such as koalas and wombats. “Koalas and wombats are amazing animals, but animals like Mukupirna show that their extinct relatives were even more extraordinary, and many of them were giants,” stated Dr. Robin Beck from the University of Salford and the lead author of the study.
The well-preserved remains of its skull and partial skeleton were found in 1973 in the clay floor of Lake Pinpa which is a remote, dry salt lake that’s located east of the Flinders Ranges in South Australia. The team was actually very lucky that the remains were found. “It was an extremely serendipitous discovery because in most years the surface of this dry lake is covered by sands blown or washed in from the surrounding hills,” explained Professor Michael Archer from the University of New South Wales and a co-author of the study. He went on to say, “But because of rare environmental conditions prior to our arrival that year, the fossil-rich clay deposits were fully exposed to view – and this unexpected view was breathtaking.”
The creature was at least three to five times bigger than modern wombats and close to the size of a panda as it weighed between 143 and 171 kilograms (315 to 377 pounds). Despite being large in size, the Mukupirna nambensis was a “gentle giant” as it more than likely ate nothing but plants. “It probably lived in an open forest environment without grasses, and developed teeth that would have allowed it to feed on sedges, roots, and tubers that it could have dug up with its powerful front legs,” said Dr. Beck.
The team came up with that conclusion based on the analysis of 79 cranium and teeth samples on its 7.8-inch skull as well as 20 postcranial samples. Interestingly, the specialized molars that are able to continuously grow in modern wombats weren’t present in the Mukupirna nambensis. (Pictures can be seen here.)
In addition to the Mukupirna nambensis, researchers found more skeletal remains at the location. “On the surface, and just below we found skulls, teeth, bones and in some cases, articulated skeletons of many new and exotic kinds of mammals,” Professor Archer explained, adding, “As well, there were the teeth of extinct lungfish, skeletons of bony fish and the bones of many kinds of water birds including flamingos and ducks.” He finished off by stating, “It was an amazingly rich fossil deposit full of extinct animals that we’d never seen before.”