Research identifies ‘airhead’ marsupial

Posted by | March 08, 2016 | ERS, News, Palaeoscience, Research, Staff | No Comments

8 March 2016

New research on the largest known marsupial, Diprotodon optatum, reveals that this ancient beast had gigantic front teeth that delivered a powerful bite.

A relative of the wombat and koala, Diprotodon roamed Australia approximately 1,600,000 – 40,000 years ago and was of similar stature to a rhinoceros, weighing up to 3 tonnes.

CT to FEA bannerThe latest research, published in the Journal of Anatomy, discovers the marsupial was an “airhead”. Having an impressively small brain, its skull also boasted extremely large cavities that were entirely hollow.

Lead scientist Dr Alana Sharp, from the School of Science & Technology at the University of New England, said: “We have a number of ideas for why these sinuses were so large. One is that Diprotodon may have used these spaces to amplify their voice to communicate over long distances, much like an elephant does today.”

According to Dr Sharp, another is that the sinuses, whilst ensuring the skull remained light weight, also provided extra strength for the large marsupial’s bite.

“Low stress and a high bite force suggests that Diprotodon may have used its giant front teeth to dig for food or defend itself. The enormous cranial sinuses allowed for huge jaw muscles to attach to the skull, while also dissipating stress and lightening the skull.”

The scientists used computer simulation to estimate how powerful a bite of the marsupial would have been and to determine if its lightweight skull would fracture under high loads.

“We CT scanned a Diprotodon fossil and built a virtual 3D model of its skull. This was then subjected to finite element analysis, which predicts stress and strain in complex objects.

“We found that the bite was over 2000 Newtons, nearly twice as much as a tigers, but Diprotodon wasn’t a meat-eater so they could have used this powerful bite during defence”.

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The article can be found here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/joa.12456/abstract

For more information or interview, contact Dr Alana Sharp on +61 2 6773 2138 or asharp6@une.edu.au