Ancient marsupial dentition is painting a more vivid picture of Pliocene Australia.

Gilbert Price from the University of Queensland set out to find more about the richly diverse ecosystem of southeastern Queensland using fossil teeth from native specimens. His findings, reported June 12th in PLoS ONE, indicate that the Chinchilla Local Fauna–as the land- and water-dwelling creatures from this area are known—had unique dietary habits.

By analyzing the relative amounts of carbon and oxygen isotopes in the teeth enamel from marsupials who lived 5 to 2.5 million years ago, Price and his associates were able to determine what exactly these prehistoric animals were munching on. They found that each species was eating a specialized diet.

One such marsupial was Protemnodon, a prehistoric kangaroo who ate plants that had varying photosynthetic properties. In fact, Protemnodon ate what modern kangaroos that live in tropical and temperate climates now feed on—not plants from the sub-tropical climate that now exists in southeastern Queensland.

A Protemnodon skeleton in the South Australian Museum

The fossil teeth indicate that he climate Protemnodon was living in was noticeably different from what it is now. In the Pliocene period, when animals closely resembled the fauna in Australia today and modern marsupials began appearing, Queensland was a lush landscape of tropical forests, wetlands, and grasslands. It was also a more humid environment than paleoecologists had previously estimated. By studying these fossils scientists can better determine the consequences of present or future climate changes.

The ancient marsupial study was published June 12, 2013 in PLoS ONE.

Published On: June 26, 2013

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