In search of a prehistoric hamster

Today is the start of a journey that might just end with us discovering just how destructive our ancestors really were.

Palaeontologist Dr Adam Yates is heading off to Darwin in Australia to find something that once looked like a giant hamster.

This is a reconstruction of what Diprotodon looked like. The drawing was done by Dr Adam Yates

This beast weighed in at about three tons and is called Diprotodon. What makes palaeontologists like Adam interested in Diprotodon is that it died out fairly recently, about 40000 years ago.

Its extinction occurred shortly after the arrival of the first Australians, and many scientists believe this was more than coincidence.

Scientists learnt about this particular ancient marsupial when a manager on a remote cattle station, near Darwin brought in a large leg bone he had found in the bank of a dried river.


This is the leg bone that was found in that river bank

At first, it was thought the bone belonged to a more contemporary animal like a horse or perhaps a water buffalo.

When he bought the bone into a museum in Darwin, scientists suddenly realised they had something special.

This is the first time that a Diprotodon has been found so far north in Australia.

Now the mission to excavate the rest of the skeleton has become a race against time.

Soon the monsoon will arrive and the danger is that the river will flood and wash the bones away.

If Adam and his team are lucky they might just find, at the site, evidence that will solve why this two metre long giant disappeared from the landscape.

The smoking gun might be cut marks on a bone, maybe the presence of spear tips.

The theory that man might have wiped out Diprotodon and other ancient Australian animals, like the marsupial lion, is a controversial one.

Hunter and gathers have been accused of wiping out other big game like the woolly mammoths in North America.

However in Australia, its first inhabitants have a reputation of living in harmony with their environment. Only taking what they needed.

But there was a lot of meat on Diprotodon, and while risky, a bit of hunting strategy and couple of throwing spears could have brought the beast down.

Adam told me that Diprotodon probably had a low reproduction rate and taking out even a few individuals would have had a catastrophic effect on the population.

But these mysteries will perhaps be answered when the bones emerge, from a hopefully still dry riverbed.

About Shaun Smillie

Journalist, with a love of bones, fossils and other things dug up. Fisherman and occasional beer maker.
This entry was posted in dinosaurs, human evolution, palaeontology, science and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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