Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Monsters Part 1: Ancient Aussie Beasties

Monsters are interesting. Now, I don’t mean yetis, Loch Ness Monsters or any of that ilk, I’m talking about the real thing. So I’m going to take a wander through some of the coolest of these bad boys (and girls) who were about in the past. This will make up a couple of posts, but let’s start with my favourite two Australian prehistoric monsters.

Our first beast is something which might be responsible for the Yowie and Bunyip myths in Oz. About 46 000 years ago, there was a rather large predator stalking the bushland of Australia. This thing rivalled the lion for shear carnivorous terror, so much so it’s called the marsupial lion. Its Latin name is Thylacoleo and there have been 3 species, the largest, Thylacoleo carnifex, was about the size of a small lion. The most striking thing about this animal is its jaws. A glance at a skull makes you double take, because it is basically filled with tooth, and I mean tooth, here have a look!

Those teeth which stretch for the majority of the jaw effectively make up a knife blade in this monster’s mouth. That knife blade is made up of two teeth on the bottom jaw, and one on the top. Those teeth are like the fourth and fifth teeth in your mouth, but have become rather specialised. Thylacoleo was a relatively small predator; maxing out at around 160kg compared to the average 250kg for a lion, but had a hell of a bite. It holds the record for the strongest bite of any animal past or present, which is kind of cool.

This puppy had really strong forelimbs and large retractable claws, all the better to grab you with. It also had cool little bones in its tail which let it use it as a tripod so it had free use of its arms for mauling. Since its claws were retractable, it was able to keep them sharp, and enabled it to climb trees. It also had a semi-opposable thumb with which to grab its prey, so once it had you, you weren’t getting away.

What really gets me about these nasty monsters is what they took on. It’s thought that they hunted, killed and ate prey that was 20 times its weight. They probably hunted Diprotodons, monsters in their own right. These were basically giant wombats which weighed over 2000kg (4400lb in the old money). Interestingly, these herbivores might be responsible for the Bunyip myth as well. But Thylacoleo probably also ate a whole bunch of different kangaroos, some of which were over 200kg in their own right. Here’s a reconstruction of the marsupial lion.

So, why the Yowie myth?

Well, these beasts were around until about 46 000 years ago. That puts then here around when people started to arrive in Australia. Well, who’d have thunk it, but there are actually aboriginal rock art depicting Thylacoleo. Also, there have been several linguistic misinterpretations by Europeans of aboriginal language. That coupled with the 46 000 years removal from the actual animal and 20th century popular culture probably come to make the Yowie something like a bigfoot myth, but this one is loosely based on an actual animal.

We go from giant, man-eating possums, to giant man-eating lizards. Megalania was a giant, 5.5 metre long monitor lizard which used Australia as a stomping ground around 40 000 years ago. There is a reconstructed skeleton of this monster in the Melbourne Museum, and it is kind of terrifying. They would have essentially have been like giant komodo dragons, and are known to be the largest known monitor lizard ever to walk the Earth. Here’s one chasing an Emu.

It’s a bit of a terrifying image to think of a goanna the size of a car running at you, especially since it has a mouth full of sharp, pointy teeth huge claws and possibly a big forked tongue. But, it had venom glands, if that didn’t make you day. So not only was it big enough to eat you in a couple of bites, but it also would have poisoned you to boot. They were thought to be ambush predators, and possibly partially aquatic, so you probably wouldn’t have seen it coming. It’s a good thing they died out around the time of the last ice age. This might not have the cool jaws of Thylacoleo, but it was the largest predator to live in Australia in the last few million years, so it’s cool for that reason, shear terrifying size. The best thing about them is that they actually existed!

As a last point, I’ve had the opportunity to hold and play with a Thylacoleo skull, and that was just cool. Here’s an amazing picture of some Australian mega fauna by the best palaeo-wildlife artist around, Peter Trusler.

Questions, suggestions and comments? Please do so. Correction or requests? Email me!

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