Marsupial lion ‘stalks’ Tweed
NOT everyone is prepared to dismiss the Tweed legend of a large flesh-eating marsupial lion stalking the dense hinterland near Tumbulgum, with a handful of locals convinced the beast is real.
For years an urban myth about this ancient creature has circulated on the Tweed.
But experts reject the theory, saying Thylacoleo carnifex (murderous lion) was too long extinct.
Fossils indicate the marsupial lion was the largest meat-eating mammal known to have ever existed in Australia.
The beasts were about 75cm high at the shoulder and about 150cm from head to tail and had retractable claws, a trait unique to marsupials.
Tweed Historical Society member Brian Boyd said he heard the stories about a creature near north Tumbulgum and from the descriptions he had been given, it could only be one thing.
"I know a few people who have seen the creature. They have recalled it for me and provided sketches," he said.
"Every time we get the same description. It looks like a large tiger or lion but it has cramped-up hind legs more like a marsupial.
"It has a thick stunted nose like a wombat and is covered in brindle fur with sulphur yellow spots.
"These descriptions fit the bill with the marsupial lion."
Mr Boyd is so engrossed by the stories and descriptions he has been given by locals that he has built a scale papier mache model of the creature (second photo), which turns heads when he puts it on his front lawn in Tweed Heads West.
"I have a friend who has seen it twice and he said it was like no other creature he had ever seen in Australia," he said.
"Just maybe one of these creatures survived and it is happy out there feeding off the wildlife near Tumbulgum."
Northern New South Wales environmental scientist Gary Opit, 64, is adamant a marsupial lion does exist, saying he has seen such a creature at least four times.
Mr Opit, who hosts a weekly radio segment on the north coast about Australian wildlife, says his encounters with the beast have stretched as far north as Mt Tamborine.
"I first saw it in 1969 when I was working as a National Park Ranger at O’Reilly’s," he said.
"I got a perfect view of it and you could tell it was some type of marsupial because it had that waddling walk."
Mr Opit, who grew up on the Gold Coast and studied at Griffith University, said he had seen a marsupial lion again in the Billinudgel Nature Reserve several times since 1995.
Jean-Marc Hero, an associate professor with the Griffith University School of Environment, is less convinced about the possibility a marsupial lion has survived.
Prof Hero said no physical evidence of live marsupial lions had been recovered since British settlement.
"It’s more likely to be a quoll or an escaped feral cat, which can get quite large," he said.
"You certainly get quolls out at Springbrook so it would be possible a large one has ventured down further near Tumbulgum."
Despite its name the Marsupial lion is not closely related to the lion, but is a member of the order Diprotodontia, a large order of about 120 marsupial mammals including the kangaroos, wallabies, possums, koala, wombats, and many others.
The marsupial lion is the largest meat-eating mammal known to have ever existed in Australia, and one of the largest marsupial carnivores from anywhere in the world.
Measurements taken from a number of specimens show that they averaged 100 to 130 kg (220 to 285 lb) in weight although individuals heavier than 160 kg (350 lb) may not have been uncommon. This would make it quite comparable to female lions and tigers in general size.
The animal was extremely robust with powerfully built jaws and very strong forelimbs. It possessed retractable claws, a unique trait among marsupials. This would have allowed the claws to remain sharp by protecting them from being worn down on hard surfaces. The claws were well-suited to securing prey and for climbing trees. The first digits (“thumbs”) on each hand were semi-opposable and bore an enlarged claw. Palaeontologists believe that this would have been used to grapple with and slash at its intended prey as well as providing it with a sure footing on tree trunks and branches. The hind feet had four functional toes, the first digit being much reduced in size but possessing a roughened pad similar to that of possums, which may have assisted with climbing. It is unclear whether the marsupial lion exhibited syndactyly (fused second and third toes) like other diprotodonts.
The marsupial lion’s hindquarters were also well-developed although to a lesser extent than the front of the animal. Remains of the animal show that it had a relatively thick and strong tail and that the vertebrae possessed chevrons on their undersides where the tail would have contacted the ground. These would have served to protect critical elements such as nerves and blood vessels if the animal used its tail to support itself when on its hind legs, much like present day kangaroos do. Taking this stance would free up its forelimbs to tackle or slash at its intended victim.
The marsupial lion was a highly specialised carnivore and this is reflected in its dentition (teeth). Like other diprotodonts, it possessed enlarged incisors on both the upper (maxillae) and lower (mandibles) jaws. However, these teeth (the lower in particular) were shaped much more like the pointed canine teeth of animals such as dogs and cats than those of Kangaroos. It is not known whether the incisors would have been used to simply stab at and pierce the flesh of its prey or whether they had more specialised functions such as separating neck vertebrae, severing the spinal cord, or lacerating major blood vessels such as the carotid artery or jugular veins.
However, the most unusual feature of the creature’s dentition were the huge blade-like carnassial premolars on either side of its jaws. The top and bottom carnassials worked together like shears and would have been very effective at slicing off chunks of flesh from carcasses and cutting through bone.
The jaw muscle of the marsupial lion was exceptionally large for its size, giving it an extremely powerful bite. Biometric calculations show that, pound for pound, it had the strongest bite of any known mammal, living or extinct – a 100 kg (220 lb) individual would have had a bite comparable with that of a 250 kg (550 lb) African Lion.
Ancient rock art depicting the extinct marsupial lion has been found in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, says a study in the journal Antiquity.
The prehistoric painting hints at what marsupial lions may have looked like, and suggests that they co-existed with early Australians.
Sources: goldcoast.com.au/article/2012/05/20/417195_gold-coast-news.html (May 20, 2012), Top drawing Adrie and Alfons Kennis for National Geographic (October 2010), en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marsupial_Lion, cryptozoologynews.blogspot.com/2009/06/marsupial-lion-found-in-aboriginal-rock.html
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