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Scientists discover new family of extinct giant wombat-like marsupials

Researchers including those from the Natural History Museum in London, have described a new family of marsupials from 25 million-year-old Australian fossil remains. The new research suggests that the wombat-like creatures were at least five times larger than living wombats. 

Scientists led by Robin Beck from the University of Salford described the new family from a partial skull and most of the skeleton, which show that it weighed about 150kg (330lbs), similar in size to a black bear. The researchers have named the animal Mukupirna, meaning ‘big bones’ in Dieri and Malyangapa, which are the Aboriginal languages spoken in the region of South Australia where the fossil was found.”

The fossil was collected in the 1970s from Lake Pinpa in north eastern South Australia by an expedition led by the late Dr Richard Tedford from the American Museum of Natural History.

Co-author, the Natural History Museum's Interim Collections Task Force Manager Pip Brewer said: 'Mukupirna reveals a fascinating mix of characteristics and provides evidence of a close link between wombats and an extinct group of marsupials called wynyardiids. It suggests that adaptations for digging for food may have existed in the very earliest members of the wombat family and likely led to their eventual survival to the present day. Although suggested previously, it had not been possible to test this, as the oldest fossil wombats discovered are only known from teeth and a few skull fragments.'

The scientists looked at how body size has evolved in vombatiforms, which is the group that includes Mukupirna, wombats, koalas and their fossil relatives, and showed that body weights of 100kg or more evolved at least six times over the last 25 million years. The largest known vombatifom was Diprotodon, which weighed over 2 tonnes and survived until approximately 50,000 years ago.

Dr Robin Beck, Lecturer in Biology at The University of Salford, who led the study, said: 'Mukupirna is one of the best-preserved marsupials we know of this age from Australia. It tells us a lot about the evolution of wombats, koalas and their relatives. It is remarkable for its large size – this was clearly an impressive, powerful beast.'

The paper was published in Scientific Reports on 25 June 2020.

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