Those were the findings reported on Wednesday by scientists who
essentially brought the extinct mammal back to life in the virtual
world to study its bite force and other qualities in comparison to
other marsupial meat-eaters.
They used 3D computer software to reconstruct its skull — patterned
after a nicely preserved fossil — and performed biomechanical
analysis to see whether it was a champion chomper.
The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, assessed the biting
and killing capabilities of a marsupial called Nimbacinus dicksoni
that lived in northern Australia during the Miocene Epoch, a span of
time populated by a wondrous array of mammals and other animals.
Nimbacinus dicksoni proved to be quite formidable and was probably
able to hunt prey bigger than itself, the study found.
"It has the teeth of a true marsupial carnivore, with well-developed
vertical slicing blades for cutting through meat and sinew," said
Stephen Wroe, a zoologist and paleontologist at Australia's
University of New England and one of the researchers.
"It likely preyed upon small to medium-sized birds, frogs, lizards
and snakes, as well as a wide range of marsupials."
But it fell short of the Tasmanian devil's chomping power.
"It was certainly less powerful and less able to handle heavy
loadings or forces than the Tasmanian devil. While it could probably
have processed smaller bones, it did not have the capacity to crush
and crack bone that the devil has — but then few creatures do," Wroe
While placental mammals — rodents, bats, cats, dogs, cows, whales
and many more, including people — dominated most of the world,
Australia was dominated by marsupial mammals, which give birth to
premature babies and then nourish them inside a pouch.
Australia's marsupials include kangaroos, wallabies, wombats and
koalas, but also some fierce meat-eaters like the Tasmanian devil
and spotted-tailed quoll. The island continent once was home to many
more carnivorous marsupials, including the wolf-sized Tasmanian
tiger that went extinct in 1936.
Nimbacinus dicksoni, also called Dickson's thylacine, was about the
size of a small fox or very big domestic cat, weighed about 11
pounds (5 kg), and had a face like a cross between a cat and an
opossum. It was a smaller relative of the Tasmanian tiger, which of
course was not a cat, despite its name.
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The researchers compared the bite force of the two species to each
other and to existing marsupial predators including the Tasmanian
devil, spotted-tailed quoll and northern quoll.
skull of Nimbacinus dicksoni was very well preserved but some parts
still were damaged or missing. The researchers digitally replaced
those parts using 3D computer software, then made a 3D model to
predict mechanical performance and how the skull might do when
biting and killing prey.
Nimbacinus dicksoni most closely matched the biting power of the
spotted-tailed quoll, which has a pink nose and brown fur covered in
white spots, even though the two species are not closely related,
the researchers found.
"Quolls are cute, but don't be deceived. They are fearless and
ferocious predators," Wroe said.
The simulations suggested the Tasmanian tiger was poorly suited to
capture and kill large prey despite being the largest of the
marsupial predators to live into recent times.
Compared to the Tasmanian tiger, Nimbacinus dicksoni possessed a
shorter, wider snout and its distinctive cheek teeth, used for
cutting and shearing meat, were not as specialized, according to
zoologist Marie Attard of the University of New England, another of
The thylacinids, the group that includes Nimbacinus dicksoni and the
Tasmanian tiger, "are an excellent example of an ecologically
diverse family that has now become extinct, and provides an
important reminder of how easily large carnivores such as the
Tasmanian tiger can be wiped out if we don't fight to save them,"
(Reporting by Will Dunham; editing by Paul Simao)
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