(Diprotodontidae), Heavyweight Marsupial Herbivores inthe Miocene Forests of Australia
Karen H. Black
, Aaron B. Camens
, Michael Archer
, Suzanne J. Hand
School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of New South Wales, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia,
Department of Earth and EnvironmentalSciences, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia
The marsupial family Diprotodontidae (Diprotodontia, Vombatiformes) is a group of extinct large-bodied (60–2500 kg)wombat-like herbivores that were common and geographically widespread in Cenozoic fossil deposits of Australia and NewGuinea. Typically they are regarded to be gregarious, terrestrial quadrupeds and have been likened in body form amongplacental groups to sheep, rhinoceros and hippopotami. Arguably, one of the best represented species is the zygomaturinediprotodontid
which is known from exceptionally well-preserved cranial and postcranial materialfrom the middle Miocene cave deposit AL90, in the Riversleigh World Heritage Area, northwestern Queensland. Here wedescribe and functionally analyse the appendicular skeleton of
and reveal a far more uniquelifestyle for this plesiomorphic and smallest of diprotodontids. Striking similarities are evident between the skeleton of
and that of the extant arboreal koala
, including the powerfully built forelimbs, highlymobile shoulder and elbow joints, proportionately large manus and pes (both with a semi-opposable digit I) andexceedingly large, recurved and laterally compressed claws. Combined with the unique (among australidelphians)proportionately shortened hindlimbs of
, these features suggest adept climbing ability, probable suspensorybehaviour, and an arboreal lifestyle. At approximately 70 kg,
is the largest herbivorous mammal to have occupiedthe forest canopies of Australia - an ecological niche that is no longer occupied in any Australian ecosystem and one thatfurther expands the already significant niche diversity displayed by marsupials during the Cenozoic.
Black KH, Camens AB, Archer M, Hand SJ (2012) Herds Overhead:
(Diprotodontidae), Heavyweight Marsupial Herbivores in theMiocene Forests of Australia. PLoS ONE 7(11): e48213. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0048213
Alistair Robert Evans, Monash University, Australia
June 27, 2012;
September 26, 2012;
November 21, 2012
2012 Black et al. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permitsunrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
The Riversleigh Fossil Project is supported by the Australian Research Council (LP0989969, LP100200486, DP1094569), Xstrata Copper CommunityPartnership Program North Queensland, Outback at Isa, Mount Isa City Council, Queensland Museum, University of New South Wales, Environment Australia,Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage, and Phil Creaser and the CREATE fund at UNSW. The funders had no role in study design, data collectionand analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.
The authors have the following interests: this research was partly supported by funds from Xstrata Copper Community PartnershipProgram North Queensland and Outback at Isa which were administered through the Australian Research Councils Linkage Projects Scheme. There are nopatents, products in development or marketed products to declare. This does not alter the authors’ adherence to all the PLOS ONE policies on sharing data andmaterials.* E-mail: email@example.com (KHB); firstname.lastname@example.org (ABC)
The diprotodontian marsupial Suborder Vombatiformes isrepresented by only four extant species: the Koala,
, sole surviving member of the once diverse (18 specieswithin eight genera) family Phascolarctidae (Infraorder Phasco-larctomorphia); and three fossorial species of wombat (InfraorderVombatomorphia, Vombatidae). Extinct koalas, like their moderncounterpart, are interpreted to have been arboreal folivores on thebasis of their relatively conservative selenodont dental morphology[1–3], although postcranial material is not known. In contrast, theprimarily terrestrial Vombatomorphia is both taxonomically(approx. 41 genera) and ecologically diverse with six extinctfamilies identified [4–6] including: Diprotodontidae (marsupialsheep, hippos and rhinos), Palorchestidae (marsupial tapirs);Thylacoleonidae (carnivorous marsupial lions); Ilariidae (marsupi-al anthracotheres); Wynyardiidae (dog-sized quadrupedal brows-ers); and Maradidae (an enigmatic monotypic family of which littleis currently known).Of these groups, the diprotodontids are taxonomically the mostdiverse (18 genera, 30 spp) and are common components of fossilassemblages throughout Australia and New Guinea spanning thelast 25 million years. While many vombatomorphian families of large herbivores (e.g. ilariids, wynyardiids, and maradids) wereextinct by early Miocene times, diprotodontids were one of the fewto increase in diversity throughout the Cenozoic, appearing tobenefit from the opening up of Australia’s forests . As such,diprotodontids are arguably the most useful mammalian group forbiocorrelating Australia’s otherwise undated Cenozoic fossilassemblages [5–9].Diprotodontids were the largest herbivores in AustralasianCenozoic palaeocommunities until their extinction in the latePleistocene and demonstrate a general trend of increasing bodysize through time [7–10] ranging from sheep- (e.g.
) and calf-sized (e.g.
)forms during the late Oligocene and culminating in the 2.5 tonnePleistocene giant
, the biggest marsupial known.The group is characterised by simple bilophodont molars, similar
PLOS ONE | www.plosone.org 1 November 2012 | Volume 7 | Issue 11 | e48213