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Marsupial lion bites strongest

06 April 2005

A study has revealed that an extinct meat-eating marsupial lion may have had the strongest bite among mammals, stronger than the lion, tiger or wolf.

A research team led by Australian scientist Stephen Wroe analysed the skulls of various living and extinct carnivore species and calculated the bite strength for each animal.

Results indicated that the extinct marsupial lion, Thylacoleo carnifex, had proportionately the most strength in its bite, almost as powerful as modern lions nearly three times its size. The most powerful bite, pound for pound, of a mammal alive today is found in the Tasmanian Devil.

Distinguished fossil expert, Sir Richard Owen, first described Thylacoleo carnifex in 1859 and thought it was extremely fierce and predatory. Dr Marcelo Sanchez-Villagra, a palaeobiologist at the Natural History Museum said, ‘there has been some dispute over interpretations about how Thylacoleo lived (and) what it was related to. This latest research goes back to Richard Owen's original ideas. These animals were top predators’ (reported on the National Geographic website).

Other ideas raised from the study that could be looked at, were the relationships between bite force, brain size, jaw musculature and intelligence. The basis of the Wroe investigation was a mathematical relation between bite force and body size.

Professor Norman MacLeod, Keeper of Palaeontology at the Natural History Museum, told the BBC ‘these sorts of scaling relationships are used, for example, to estimate maximum travelling speeds of ancient animals based on their body size and the length of their stride.’

‘Researchers often look for deviations in such trends. Why an animal deviates strongly raises valid research questions about the design of that animal. For example, if you plot brain size versus body size, there is a nice regular relationship - but humans are way off the scale. That's because there's been much greater brain development in humans than in most other animals.’ But when it came to bite strength, the marsupial lion saw greater development than other animals.

The scientist published their findings in the Proceedings of the Royal Society.