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Scientists discover extinct group of snail-eating marsupials in Australia

"Its most striking feature was a huge, extremely powerful, hammer-like premolar," paleontologist Mike Archer said.

By Brooks Hays
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Scientists discover extinct group of snail-eating marsupials in Australia
The sets of both baby and adult teeth found on the fossil jaw of the young malleodectid helped scientists analyze and classify the unique snail-eating marsupial. Photo by Karen Black and Suzanne Hand/UNSW

SYDNEY, May 27 (UPI) -- Paleontologists have unearthed the remains of a previously unknown family of carnivorous Australian marsupials. The animals, now extinct, lived 15 million years ago and appear to have had a neverending hankering for snails.

"Malleodectes mirabilis was a bizarre mammal, as strange in its own way as a koala or kangaroo," Mike Archer, researcher and professor at the University of New South Wales, said in a news release. "Its most striking feature was a huge, extremely powerful, hammer-like premolar that would have been able to crack and then crush the strongest snail shells in the forest."

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The teeth of malleodectids have been found previously by researchers, but the latest discovery is the first time a sizable, well-preserved fossil has been unearthed.

The skull of a juvenile malleodectid was recovered from a limestone cave deposit at the Riversleigh World Heritage Fossil Site in northwestern Queensland. The deposit is roughly 15 million years old, meaning the fossils it yields hail from the Middle Miocene.

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The wall and ceiling of the Riversleigh cave have been eroded away. Today, all that remains is the limestone floor -- rich with fossils. Over thousands of years, animals fell to their deaths, their remains accumulating at the bottom of the pit.

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Such was the fate of the newly discovered marsupial.

"The juvenile malleodectid could have been clinging to the back of its mother while she was hunting for snails in the rocks around the cave's entrance, and may have fallen in and then been unable to climb back out," said researcher Suzanne Hand, also a UNSW professor.

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The new fossil featured both baby teeth and underlying adult teeth, ready to emerge. This aided analysis and classification of the new fossil by paleontologists.

"Details of the canine, premolar and molar teeth of this specimen have enabled its relationships to other Australian marsupials to be determined with reasonable confidence," explained Archer. "Although it is very different from the others, it appears to have been related to the dasyures -- marsupial carnivores such as Tasmanian devils and the extinct Tasmanian tigers that are unique to Australia and New Guinea."

Archer and his colleagues believe climate change, which drove the conversion of Australia's rain forests into sparser forests and grasslands, likely precipitated the downfall of malleodectids.

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The new research was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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