Ancient Lion With "Bolt Cutter" Jaws: Best Killer Ever?

Dave Hansford in Wellington, New Zealand
for National Geographic News in Wellington, New Zealand
February 1, 2008
An extinct marsupial lion that once roamed Australia is the most efficient killer ever known, researchers say.

A digital 3-D simulation has shown that Thylacoleo carnifex—"pouched lion executioner"—could deliver a bite far more lethal than any other known carnivore living or extinct.

Scientists have suspected the creature packed an incredibly strong bite for several years, but they only recently found evidence to confirm their theory.

The researchers compared the lion's bite force and killing methodology with that of a modern-day African lion.

They built digital models of both species' skulls based on CAT-scan X-rays.

"It goes a step further than most models," said study lead author Stephen Wroe, a research fellow at the University of New South Wales, Australia.

"It's high enough resolution for us to assign different material properties to different densities of bone," he said.

The models also account for the arrangement of muscles, allowing the scientists to map the distribution of stress and strain in the skull in considerable detail.

"The bottom line is, it's a far more sophisticated, and closer, approximation of the real thing than you would ever get."

The study appeared recently in the Journal of Zoology.

Far More Murderous

Various sorts of "digital crash tests" revealed that the lion employed a technique far more murderous than present-day lions, Wroe said.

The ancient predator would ambush prey many times its own size and weight and rapidly dispatch the victim with devastating jaws.

The marsupial lion's skull "looks very well-adapted to resist the stresses from a slicing bite with huge carnassials, or cheek teeth," he said, adding that the teeth resembled "massive bolt cutter-like blades."

"Perhaps the marsupial lion was using those huge carnassials and bite force to slice into vulnerable parts of the prey animal—the throat region would be an obvious one," he said.

The animal apparently killed with catastrophic trauma, slicing through major blood vessels or the windpipe, resulting in a relatively rapid death.

The lion likely preyed on giant kangaroos, wombats, and diprotodontids—3.3-ton marsupial herbivores—that disappeared (along with the killer lion) between 60,000 and 30,000 years ago.

(Related news: "Ice Age Marsupial Topped Three Tons, Scientists Say" [October 17, 2003].)

Nasty Animal

Gavin Prideaux, a paleontologist at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, was not involved in the research.

"It was probably the sort of beast that hung around water holes or wherever big herbivores congregated," he said of the lion.

(See a picture of an African water hole.)

"One of the questions that still needs to be answered is whether it was a pack hunter or not."

The predator also had retractable claws and semiopposable thumbs, Prideaux said.

"They were designed to hang on. Once they got a hold of you, you wouldn't have been going anywhere.

"It would have been a pretty nasty animal."

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