June 25, 2020 / 7:49 PM / 2 months ago

Bear-sized wombat cousin roamed Australia 25 million years ago

The prehistoric marsupial Mukupirna nambensis, a plant-eating mammal about the size of a black bear that lived roughly 25 million years ago in Australia and was related to a modern wombat, is seen in an artist's impression released on June 25, 2020. Peter Schouten/Handout via REUTERS

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A powerfully built relative of modern wombats that was the size of a black bear roamed Australia’s woodlands about 25 million years ago, possessing shovel-shaped hands and strong forelimbs indicating it was an adept digger, scientists said on Thursday.

The plant-eating mammal called Mukupirna nambensis, known from the fossil of a partial skull and much of the skeleton unearthed at Lake Pinpa in northeastern South Australia state, is one of the earliest-known large-bodied Australian marsupials, they said.

Mukupirna, meaning “big bones” in the local Aboriginal language, provides insight into the evolution of a marsupial group called vombatiforms that includes koalas and wombats. It was a cousin of wombats - distinctive muscular and short-legged animals - and boasts skeletal traits showing the beginnings of certain wombat features such as adaptations for digging, though probably was unable to burrow like a wombat.

Australia was dominated not by placental mammals - cats, dogs, elephants, apes, horses and others - as most continents were after the demise of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago but by marsupials, mammals that give birth to immature young to be carried and suckled in a pouch on the mother’s belly.

Mukupirna weighed about 330 pounds (150 kg), similar to an American black bear and five times bigger that modern wombats.

“It may have looked a bit wombat-like, but with a smaller head, longer, less robust limbs and a longer tail. It probably fed on roots and tubers, which it could have dug up with its powerful forelimbs,” said Robin Beck, a lecturer in biology at the University of Salford in England who led the research published in the journal Scientific Reports.

“It is a very unusual animal, related to wombats but with its own unique features that led us to classify it in its own family,” Beck added.

Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Daniel Wallis

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