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Killer Kangaroo Had Wolf-Like Fangs, Scientists Say

Sean Markey
for National Geographic News
July 25, 2006
 
A cache of bizarre animal fossils unearthed in Australia includes killer kangaroos, marsupial lions, and a giant relative of a huge bird nicknamed the "demon duck of doom," scientists say.

Researchers from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney say they found the remains of as many as 20 new species during a recent two-week dig in northeastern Queensland (map of Australia).

"There are weird, flesh-eating kangaroos," Michael Archer, science dean at UNSW, told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio earlier this month.

"There are about 35 different kinds of extinct kangaroos in [Queensland] deposits. None of them would've looked like anything we would have recognized today, because they didn't hop," he said.

"These were galloping kangaroos with big powerful forelimbs. Some of them had long canines like wolves."

Henk Godthelp, a UNSW vertebrate paleontologist, says the new kangaroo discoveries include a saber-toothed species that may have used its large teeth for grooming or to attract mates.

"[The teeth] don't really look [like] anything used to rip intestines out of unsuspecting prey," he said.

The team also found more complete skeletons of a previously known carnivorous kangaroo, an early species with short, muscular arms.

"[It] looked like it would give you a very serious bear hug," Godthelp said, adding that 'roo may have used its arms to grab ambushed prey.

"[It] used to leap out from behind trees and scare the bejesus out of prey and then calmly chomp it to pieces."

"Demon Duck of Doom"

The UNSW paleontologists also found fossils of a larger relative of a giant bird previously dubbed the "demon duck of doom."

Most closely related to modern ducks, the flightless "demon bird" probably resembled an enormous emu or ostrich, although fossil remains are scarce.

A single fossil leg bone from the new, larger find stands as high as his hip, Godthelp says. The bird's entire leg would have towered above his head.

"And I'm not a short chap. I'm well over six foot [two meters]," he said. "So these were big birds, and you can only imagine what some multinational like Kentucky Fried [Chicken] would have done with them."

Treasure Trove

The fossils come from the Riversleigh fossil beds in northeastern Queensland, an area rich in old river beds that later became riddled with limestone caves.

Acting like pit traps, the caves captured and preserved a wide array of plant and animal species from between 5 million and 20 to 23 million years ago and the environments they lived in.

Such a rich fossil record provides clues about how species evolved in response to climate change in ancient Australia, says Benjamin Kear, who studies ancient kangaroos at the Museum of Southern Australia in Adelaide.

(Read "Weird Australia Rocks Are Earliest Signs of Life, Study Says" [June 7, 2006].)

Riversleigh digs have also uncovered fossils of Earth's oldest known kangaroos and many branches of the kangaroo family tree.

"The beauty of it is they're relatively complete skeletons as well," Kear said. "So you can start looking at things like how hopping evolved, which is quite a novel adaptation for a modern group of animals."

"It's one of the great things about Riversleigh," Godthelp added. "It actually allows us to collect many, many different kinds of things."

Examples from recent years include a number of early crocodile species that were smaller than today's crocs and appear to have been land-based.

It's been suggested that the ancient reptiles may have behaved more like modern-day goannas, or Australian monitor lizards.

The crocs may have climbed trees to escape predators and to leap on prey, scientists theorize.

It's difficult to deduce such behaviors from fossil records alone, however, Godthelp says.

The research team will prepare their new fossils and send them to researchers in Australia and elsewhere for further study.

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