AceHistoryDesk – A new species of prehistoric koala has been identified in the middle of the Northern Territory outback.
Ace Press News From Cutting Room Floor: Published: Sept.08: 2023: ABC Australia History News
Teeth from the animal were found at the Pwerte Marnte Marnte fossil bed 100 kilometres south of Alice Springs, thought to be 25 million years old, making it one of the oldest known koala relatives.
Arthur Crichton, Flinders University PhD student and lead author on a report detailing the discovery, said the new species was found along with specimens of two already-identified koalas.
“We’ve got about 10 fossil koala teeth specimens,” he said.
“Basically, they’re from three different species — we found about 10 koala molars.”
He said the fossils were found over the course of two years.
“They’re from three different species of koala that would have been living at the same time occupying different niches in the trees.”
Teeth hold clues
The new species has been named Lumakoala blackae — a nod to the configuration of the animals’ thorny teeth.
“ Luma is Latin for thorn, in reference to its tooth morphology,” Mr Crichton said.
“The shape of the cusps [and] spikes on its molars … the configuration of those structures is really quite unique in the context of koalas.
“It’s really interesting from an evolutionary consideration.”
Mr Crichton said the discovery provided clues about the evolution of Australia’s unique marsupials.
“We hypothesise that the tooth morphology of this new taxon helps bridge a 30-million-year gap in the fossil record of the marsupial groups that includes koalas, wombats, possums and kangaroos,” he said.
First koalas discovered in NT
Until now, there has been no record of koalas ever living in the Northern Territory.
The two other types of koala found at the site were Madakoala and Nimiokoala.
“The only other occurrence of three koala species in one fossil site is from an 18-million-year-old fossil site at Riversleigh World Heritage Area in Queensland,” Mr Crichton said.
“It is very nice to finally have koalas also represented in the Northern Territory, because it’s the only state other than Tasmania, that hasn’t had koalas known, either in the modern history or the fossil record.”
Mr Crichton said Central Australian landscape would probably have looked dramatically different during the Oligocene period, 23 to 25 million years ago, when the animals would have been alive.
“There was probably high plant diversity in a wooded or possibly forested environment,” he said.
He said that the newly discovered species would only have weighed around 2.5 kilograms.
“It was about the size of a brushtail possum or a cat … which is a lot smaller than the modern koala.
“Adaptations of its teeth suggest it ate mainly soft leaves, but wouldn’t have turned down an insect given the chance.”
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