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Temporal range: late Pliocene—late Pleistocene
Thylacoleo skeleton in Naracoorte Caves.jpg
Skeleton of a Thylacoleo carnifex in the Victoria Fossil Cave, Naracoorte Caves National Park
Scientific classification Red Pencil Icon.png
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Infraclass: Marsupialia
Order: Diprotodontia
Family: Thylacoleonidae
Genus: Thylacoleo
Owen, 1859
Type species
Thylacoleo carnifex

Thylacoleo ("pouch lion") is an extinct genus of carnivorous marsupials that lived in Australia from the late Pliocene to the late Pleistocene (2 million to 46 thousand years ago). Some of these marsupial lions were the largest mammalian predators in Australia of their time, with Thylacoleo carnifex approaching the weight of a lioness. The estimated average weight for the species ranges from 101 to 130 kg (223 to 287 lb). [1]



The genus was first published in 1859, erected to describe the type species Thylacoleo carnifex . The new taxon was established in examination of fossil specimens provided to Richard Owen. The familial alliance takes its name from this description, the so-called marsupial lions of Thylacoleonidae.

The colloquial name "marsupial lion" alludes to the superficial resemblance to the placental lion and its ecological niche as a large predator. Thylacoleo is not closely related to the modern lion ( Panthera leo ).

Genus:Thylacoleo (Thylacopardus) – Australia's marsupial lions, that lived from about 2 million years ago, during the Late Pliocene Epoch and became extinct about 30,000 years ago[ citation needed ], during the Late Pleistocene Epoch. Three species are known:

Fossils of other representatives of Thylacoleonidae, such as Microleo and Wakaleo , date back to the Late Oligocene Epoch, some 24 million years ago. [3]


Skull of T. carnifex Cambridge Natural History Mammalia Fig 074.png
Skull of T. carnifex

Pound for pound, Thylacoleo carnifex had the strongest bite of any mammal species, living or extinct; a T. carnifex weighing 101 kg (223 lb) had a bite comparable to that of a 250 kg African lion, and research suggests that Thylacoleo could hunt and take prey much larger than itself. [4] Larger animals that were likely prey include Diprotodon spp. and giant kangaroos. It seems improbable that Thylacoleo could achieve as high a bite force as a modern-day lion; however, this might have been possible when taking into consideration the size of its brain and skull. Carnivores usually have rather large brains when compared to herbivorous marsupials, which lessens the amount of bone that can be devoted to enhancing bite force. Thylacoleo however, is thought to have had substantially stronger muscle attachments and therefore a smaller brain. Canids possessed elongated skulls, while cats tend to possess foreshortened ones. The similarities between cat morphology and that of Thylacoleo indicates that although it was a marsupial, biologically it possessed greater similarities to cats, and as a result had a higher capacity for bite strength than other animals within its own infraclass. [5]

Restoration of T. carnifex Journal.pone.0208020.g011.tif
Restoration of T. carnifex

It also had extremely strong fore limbs, with retractable, cat-like claws, a trait previously unseen in marsupials. Thylacoleo also possessed enormous hooked claws set on large semiopposable thumbs, which were used to capture and disembowel prey. The long muscular tail was similar to that of a kangaroo. Specialised tail bones called chevrons allowed the animal to balance on its back legs, and freed the front legs for slashing and grasping. [6]

Its strong forelimbs, retracting claws, and incredibly powerful jaws mean that Thylacoleo possibly climbed trees and perhaps carried carcasses to keep the kill for itself (similar to the leopard today). [7] The climbing ability would have also helped them climb out of caves, which could therefore have been used as dens to rear their young. [8]

Skull of T. carnifex Thylacoleo carnifex 1.JPG
Skull of T. carnifex
Restoration of T. carnifex Thylacoleo BW.jpg
Restoration of T. carnifex

Due to its unique predatory morphology, some scientists have claimed Thylacoleo to be the most specialised mammalian carnivore of all time. [9] Thylacoleo had vertical shearing 'carnassial' cheek teeth that are relatively larger than in any other mammalian carnivore. [4] Thylacoleo was clearly derived from the diprotodontian ancestry due to its incisor morphology and is distinguished by the pronounced development of upper and lower third premolars which functioned as extreme carnassials with complementary reduction in the molar teeth row. [10] They also had canines but they served little purpose as they were stubby and not very sharp. [11]

Thylacoleo was 75 cm (30 in) at the shoulder and about 150 cm (59 in) long from head to tail. [12] The species T. carnifex is the largest, and skulls indicate they averaged 101 to 130 kg (223 to 287 lb), and individuals reaching 124 to 160 kg (273 to 353 lb) were common, and the largest weight was of 128–164 kg (282–362 lb). [13] Fully grown, Thylacoleo carnifex would have been close to the same size as a jaguar. [14]


Restoration of Thylacoleo attacking Diprotodon. Thylacoleo vs Diprotodon.jpg
Restoration of Thylacoleo attacking Diprotodon .

While considered a powerful hunter, and a fierce predator, it has been theorized that due to its physiology Thylacoleo was, in fact, a slow runner, limiting its ability to chase prey. Analysis of its scapula suggests "walking and trotting, rather than climbing ... the pelvis similarly agrees with that of ambulators and cursors [walkers and runners]". These bones indicate that Thylacoleo was a slow to medium-paced runner, which is likely to mean it was an ambush predator. That fits with the stripes: camouflage of the kind one would need for stalking and hiding in a largely forested habitat (like tigers or leopards) rather than chasing across open spaces (like lions).” [15] It may have functioned generally much like a larger analog of the Tasmanian devil. [8] New evidence also suggests that it may have been arboreal, and was at the very least capable of climbing trees. [7]

At the site at Lancefield, many bones have been excavated and have been discovered to be a part of an estimated several hundred thousand diverse individuals. Some of those bones had strange cuts on their surfaces. Two likely explanations follow from this: marks were produced by prehistoric humans during butchering or by the teeth of Thylacoleo carnifex. Through archaeological and paleoecological findings, researchers concluded that the T. carnifex had caused all the cut marks. Because of their large size, the population had to feed on other species just as large as their own just to avoid an imbalance in their diets. They may have killed by using their front claws as either stabbing weapons or as a way to grab their prey with strangulation or suffocation. [16]


It was believed that the extinction was due to the climate changes, but human activities as an extinction driver of the most recent species is possible yet unproven. There is a growing consensus that the extinction of the megafauna was caused by progressive drying starting about 700,000 years ago (700 ka). It is revealed recently that there was a major change in glacial-interglacial cycles after ~450 ka. As for human involvement's contribution to the extinction, one argument is that the arrival of humans was coincident with the disappearance of all the extinct megafauna. It is supported by the claims that during MIS3, climatic conditions are relatively stable and no major climate change would cause the mass extinction of megafauna including Thylacoleo. Due to the lack of data, the human role in the extinction cannot be proven. [17]

Although believed to have been a victim of climate change, some scientists now believe Thylacoleo to have been exterminated by humans altering the ecosystem with fire in addition to hunting its prey. “They found Sporormiella spores, which grow in herbivore dung, virtually disappeared around 41,000 years ago, a time when no known climate transformation was taking place. At the same time, the incidence of fire increased, as shown by a steep rise in charcoal fragments. It appears that humans, who arrived in Australia around this time, hunted the megafauna to extinction". [18] Following the extinction of T. carnifex, no other apex mammalian predators have taken its place. [19]


Drawing of T. carnifex skull fragments, 1859 Thylacoskullcope.jpg
Drawing of T. carnifex skull fragments, 1859

"The first evidence for the existence of Thylacoleo came from some material collected in the early 1830s from the Wellington Valley region, New South Wales, by Major (later Sir) Thomas Mitchell." However, it was not confirmed to be teeth from Thylacoleo at that time and further details were not given. [11]

The existence was first described by Sir Richard Owen in 1859. [11]

In 2002, eight remarkably complete skeletons of T. carnifex were discovered in a limestone cave under Nullarbor Plain, where the animals fell through a narrow opening in the plain above. Based on the placement of their skeletons, at least some survived the fall, only to die of thirst and starvation. [20] [21]

Tracing of cave art from the Kimberley discovered in 2008, possibly depicting a striped T. carnifex Thylacoleo carnifex cave art.jpg
Tracing of cave art from the Kimberley discovered in 2008, possibly depicting a striped T. carnifex

In 2008, rock art depicting what is thought to be a Thylacoleo was discovered on the northwestern coast of the Kimberley. However, there is the possibility that the thylacine, a related marsupial that also had a striped coat, may be the subject of the work, instead. [22] [23] The drawing represented only the second example of megafauna depicted by the indigenous inhabitants of Australia. The image contains details that would otherwise have remained only conjecture; the tail is depicted with a tufted tip, it has pointed ears rather than rounded, and the coat is striped. The prominence of the eye, a feature rarely shown in other animal images of the region, raises the possibility that the creature may have been a nocturnal hunter. [24] In 2009, a second image was found that depicts a Thylacoleo interacting with a hunter who is in the act of spearing or fending the animal off with a multiple-barbed spear. Much smaller and less detailed than the 2008 find, it may depict a thylacine, but the comparative size indicates a Thylacoleo is more likely, meaning that it is possible that Thylacoleo was extant until more recently than previously thought. [25]

In 2016, trace fossils in Tight Entrance Cave were identified as being the scratch marks of a Thylacoleo. [7]


The first Thylacoleo fossil findings, discovered by Thomas Mitchell and described by Richard Owen, consisted of broken teeth, jaws, and skulls. It was not until 100 years later, 1966, that the first nearly-complete skeleton was found. The only pieces missing were a foot and the tail. Currently, the Nullarbor Plain of West Australia remains to be the greatest finding site. These fossils now reside at the Australian Museum. [26] [27]

It was reported that in 2012, an accumulation of vertebrate trace and body fossils were found in the Victorian Volcanic Plains in south-eastern Australia. It was determined that Thylacoleo was the only species that represented three divergent fossil records: skeletal, footprints, and bite marks. What this suggests is that these large carnivores had behavioral characteristics that could have increased their likelihood of their presence being detected within a fossil fauna. [28]

A characteristic seen in the remains of skull fragments is a set of carnassial teeth, suggesting the carnivorous habits of Thylacoleo. Tooth fossils of the thylacoleo exhibit specific degrees of erosion that are credited to the utility of the carnassial teeth remains as they were used for hunting and consuming prey in a prehistoric Australia teeming with other megafauna. The specialisation found in the dental history of the marsupial indicates its status in the predatory hierarchy in which it existed. [29]

According to fossil records, T. carnifex is the largest known marsupial carnivore from the Australian Pleistocene. Using data collected from the most complete skeleton record available, researchers have been able to estimate the weight of the specimen to have been between 112–143 kg. In examining other specimens, it is estimated that the largest individual from the available sample weighed more than 160 kg, although the estimated average weight of T. carnifex lies between 101–130 kg. [13]

Related Research Articles

<i>Diprotodon</i> Extinct marsupial genus

Diprotodon is an extinct genus of large marsupials native to Australia from the Pleistocene epoch. It is considered one of Australia's core species of "megafauna", which ranged throughout the continent during the Pleistocene. The genus is currently considered monotypic, containing only Diprotodon optatum, the largest known marsupial to have ever existed. The word diprotodon is constructed from the Ancient Greek words for 'two forward teeth'. Diprotodon existed from about 1.6 million years ago until extinction some 44,000 years ago.

Diprotodontia Order of marsupial mammals

Diprotodontia is the largest extant order of marsupials, with about 155 species, including the kangaroos, wallabies, possums, koala, wombats, and many others. Extinct diprotodonts include the hippopotamus-sized Diprotodon, and Thylacoleo, the so-called "marsupial lion".

Megafauna Large or giant animals

In terrestrial zoology, the megafauna comprises the large or giant animals of an area, habitat, or geological period, extinct and/or extant. The most common thresholds used are weight over 45 kilograms (100 lb) or over a tonne, 1,000 kilograms (2,205 lb). The first of these include many species not popularly thought of as overly large, and being the only few large animals left in a given range/area, such as white-tailed deer, thomson's gazelle, and red kangaroo. In practice, the most common usage encountered in academic and popular writing describes land mammals roughly larger than a human that are not (solely) domesticated. The term is especially associated with the Pleistocene megafauna – the land animals often larger than modern counterparts considered archetypical of the last ice age, such as mammoths, the majority of which in northern Eurasia, the Americas and Australia became extinct within the last forty thousand years. Among living animals, the term megafauna is most commonly used for the largest extant terrestrial mammals, which includes elephants, giraffes, hippopotamuses, rhinoceroses, and large bovines. Of these five categories of large herbivores, only bovines are presently found outside of Africa and southern Asia, but all the others were formerly more wide-ranging, with their ranges and populations continually shrinking and decreasing over time. Wild equines are another example of megafauna, but their current ranges are largely restricted to the old world, specifically Africa and Asia. Megafaunal species may be categorized according to their dietary type: megaherbivores, megacarnivores, and, more rarely, megaomnivores. Megafauna are also categorized by the order of animals that they belong to, which are mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and invertebrates.

<i>Smilodon</i> Extinct genus of saber-toothed cat

Smilodon is a genus of the extinct machairodont subfamily of the felids. It is one of the most famous prehistoric mammals and the best known saber-toothed cat. Although commonly known as the saber-toothed tiger, it was not closely related to the tiger or other modern cats. Smilodon lived in the Americas during the Pleistocene epoch. The genus was named in 1842 based on fossils from Brazil; the generic name means "scalpel" or "two-edged knife" combined with "tooth". Three species are recognized today: S. gracilis, S. fatalis, and S. populator. The two latter species were probably descended from S. gracilis, which itself probably evolved from Megantereon. The hundreds of individuals obtained from the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles constitute the largest collection of Smilodon fossils.

Dire wolf Extinct species of the genus Aenocyon from North America

The dire wolf is an extinct canine. It is one of the most famous prehistoric carnivores in North America, along with its extinct competitor Smilodon. The dire wolf lived in the Americas and eastern Asia during the Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene epochs. The species was named in 1858, four years after the first specimen had been found. Two subspecies are recognized: Aenocyon dirus guildayi and Aenocyon dirus dirus. The largest collection of its fossils has been obtained from the Rancho La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles.

<i>Canis</i> Genus of carnivores

Canis is a genus of the Caninae which includes multiple extant species, such as wolves, dogs, coyotes, and golden jackals. Species of this genus are distinguished by their moderate to large size, their massive, well-developed skulls and dentition, long legs, and comparatively short ears and tails.

Megalania Largest species of lizard (extinct)

Megalania is an extinct species of giant monitor lizard, part of the megafaunal assemblage that inhabited Australia during the Pleistocene. It is the largest terrestrial lizard known to have existed, reaching an estimated length of 3.5 to 7 metres, and weighing between 97–1,940 kg (214–4,277 lb), but the fragmentary nature of known remains make estimates highly uncertain. Megalania is thought to have had a similar ecology to the living Komodo dragon. The youngest fossil remains of giant monitor lizards in Australia date to around 50,000 years ago. The first indigenous settlers of Australia might have encountered Megalania, and been a factor in their extinction.

Australian megafauna

The term Australian megafauna refers to a number of megafauna in Australia during the Pleistocene Epoch. Most of these species became extinct during the latter half of the Pleistocene, and the roles of human and climatic factors in their extinction are contested.

Machairodontinae Extinct subfamily of carnivores

Machairodontinae is an extinct subfamily of carnivoran mammals of the family Felidae. They were found in Asia, Africa, North America, South America, and Europe from the Miocene to the Pleistocene, living from about 16 million until about 11,000 years ago.

<i>Thylacosmilus</i> Extinct family of mammals

Thylacosmilus is an extinct genus of saber-toothed metatherian mammals that inhabited South America from the Late Miocene to Pliocene epochs. Though Thylacosmilus looks similar to the "saber-toothed cats", it was not a felid, like the well-known North American Smilodon, but a sparassodont, a group closely related to marsupials, and only superficially resembled other saber-toothed mammals due to convergent evolution. A 2005 study found that the bite forces of Thylacosmilus and Smilodon were low, which indicates the killing-techniques of saber-toothed animals differed from those of extant species. Remains of Thylacosmilus have been found primarily in Catamarca, Entre Ríos, and La Pampa Provinces in northern Argentina.

Dromornis stirtoni was a species of the genus Dromornis, a part of the Dromornithidae family, and was colloquially known as Stirton's thunderbird. It was a large feathered bird that grew up to heights of 2.5m and weights in excess of 450 kg and is widely thought to have been the largest avian species to have ever existed. Patricia Vickers-Rich first discovered the remains of the bird in 1979 in the Alcoota Fossil Beds in the Northern Territory of Australia. The bird was characterised by a deep lower jaw and quadrate bone, large, muscular hind legs with hoof-like toes, and small wings that deemed it flightless. The bird is largely thought to have been mostly herbivorous, although they may have occasionally scavenged or eaten small prey. Dromornis stirtoni is thought to have lived in a semi-arid climate, characterised by seasonal rainfall and open woodlands.

Carnassial Mammal tooth type

Carnassials are paired upper and lower teeth modified in such a way as to allow enlarged and often self-sharpening edges to pass by each other in a shearing manner. This adaptation is found in carnivorans, where the carnassials are the modified fourth upper premolar and the first lower molar, however this may vary in family. These teeth are also referred to as sectorial teeth.

Thylacoleonidae Extinct family of marsupials

Thylacoleonidae is a family of extinct meat-eating marsupials from Australia, referred to as marsupial lions. The best known is Thylacoleo carnifex, also called the marsupial lion. The clade ranged from the Late Oligocene to the Pleistocene, with some species the size of a possum and others as large as a leopard or as a cheetah. As a whole, they were largely arboreal, in contrast to the mostly terrestrial dasyuromorphs, monitor lizards and mekosuchines.

Wakaleo was a genus of medium-sized thylacoleonids that lived in Australia in the Late Oligocene and Miocene Epochs. Although much smaller than its close relative, the marsupial lion, Wakaleo would have been a successful hunter. It had teeth specially designed for cutting and stabbing. The genus is from an extinct family of Vombatiformes, so it is distantly related to the herbivorous wombats.

<i>Thylacoleo carnifex</i> Extinct species of marsupial

Thylacoleo carnifex, also known as the "marsupial lion", is an extinct species of carnivorous marsupial mammal that lived in Australia from the early to the late Pleistocene. Despite its name, it is not closely related to the lion but is a member of the order Diprotodontia, one of the taxonomic groups of Australian marsupials.

Wakaleo oldfieldi is an extinct species of marsupial lions of the genus Wakaleo, found in the Cenozoic deposits of South Australia. It had three unfused molar teeth instead of two fused molars as is the case with the Pleistocene Thylacoleo carnifex.

<i>Anachlysictis</i> Extinct species of mammal

Anachlysictis gracilis is an extinct carnivorous mammal belonging to the group Sparassodonta, which were metatherians that inhabited South America during the Cenozoic. Anachlysictis is the first record of such borhyaenoids in northern South America, and also the most primitive known member of the family Thylacosmilidae, a group of predators equipped with "saber teeth". It was also the only confirmed record of a thylacosmilid that did not belong to the genus Thylacosmilus until the official publication of Patagosmilus in 2010.

Beringian wolf extinct type of wolf that lived during the Ice Age in Alaska, Yukon, and northern Wyoming

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Lekaneleo roskellyae is a fossil species of carnivorous marsupial that existed during the early Miocene in Australia. Once allied to the type species of the genus Priscileo, later placed as Wakaleo pitikantensis, "Priscileo" roskellyae was subsequently transferred to its own genus Lekaneleo.

Wakaleo schouteni is a species of carnivorous marsupial that was discovered at fossil sites in South Australia.


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