Bone Diggers: Mystery of a Lost Predator, Thylacoleo – The Marsupial Lion
Australia is known for its cute marsupials, the koala, the kangaroo and the wombat among others. Very few people are aware that there was once a marsupial that was a deadly “creep up and get ya” predator that was more ferocious than a sabre tooth tiger. It was Thylacoleo Carnifex — the Marsupial Lion Australia’s lost predator.
The Nullarbor Plain is a remote treeless desert resting between the Great Australian Bight and the Great Sandy Desert. It is hard, stony country…flat and featureless.
In May of 2002 an group of cavers, in an Indiana Jones style operation, discovered three caves, which had never been entered by man. The entrance to one of the caves was mere shoulder-width, vertical tube that rapidly expanded to cathedral proportions. In the first cave their head torches illuminated a sight that caused scientific wonderment and a world-wide media frenzy.
At the far end of a side tunnel the cavers discovered the pristine and complete skeleton of the fabled marsupial lion, Thylacoleo. It lay there as if it had died only a year ago. The skeleton was bleach white against the red earth and not a speck of dust on it. Their immediate reaction was to take a photo and get out – their main concern was to preserve the site for scientific analysis.
The photo of Thylacoleo and the cave coordinates ended up on the desk of Dr John Long, vertebrate palaeontologist a world renowned Bone Digger with the Western Australian Museum. Within a matter of weeks funding and an expedition to recover the remains had been arranged. It would prove a journey full of surprises both during the expedition and later as the remains were studied. The first surprise to take John and his team by surprise was the age of the remains. He was sure the skeleton could only be about 40,000 years old — several dating techniques later and a shattering date of at least 500,000 years suddenly propelled the find into mega-star status.
Bone Diggers – Mystery of a Lost Predator is the amazing story of the dangerous recovery mission and how the remains of the marsupial lion allowed science a unique opportunity to reconstruct the beast and it’s behaviour.
From recreating its brain to morphological analysis, the life and form of Thylacoleo began to take shape – this is science at its best!
A co-production between Storyteller Media and the Western Australian Museum.
Storyteller produce and distribute documentaries and factual programming specialising in animals and nature; from endangered species and what’s being done to save them to mysterious animal and monster stories. Follow @AnimalXTV
Scientists are using cutting-edge technology to map dinosaur tracks
Scientists are trying to reconstruct ancient Australian landscapes once roamed by some of the biggest dinosaurs to have ever walked the planet by surveying thousands of fossilised tracks in remote Western Australia.
Along a 100km stretch (62 miles) of coast in Western Australia’s Kimberley region, tens of thousands of dinosaur tracks are fossilised in sandstone.
The 130-million-year-old footprints are virtually the only record of dinosaurs in the western half of the continent.
They date to the Early Cretaceous Period when the continent was still connected by a land bridge to Antarctica and covered in towering conifer forests.
“These tracks are at least 15 to 20 million years older than the majority of dinosaur fossils that have been found at sites in eastern Australia,” says Dr Steve Salisbury, a palaeontologist from the University of Queensland.
“They provide a very detailed snapshot of the dinosaur fauna from a time and place where there’s almost nothing else,” he told the BBC.
Drones and low-speed aircraft sweep over the prints on the rare times they are exposed by the sea
The fossils also hold immense cultural value for local indigenous communities.
Dr Salisbury says they feature in an Aboriginal “song cycle” that extends along the coastline, and that “knowledge of the tracks probably extends back thousands of years”.
He was first invited to the region in 2011 by the Goolarabooloo people who were trying to halt the development of a proposed A$35bn ($24bn; £16bn) natural gas precinct at an area known as James Price Point, 50km north of Broome.
In 2013, two years after a section of the coast was granted National Heritage Status, the development was finally cancelled.
Dr Salisbury is now leading a project to digitally catalogue the fossils and reconstruct the landscapes these dinosaurs wandered through.
‘We’re talking huge, huge tracks’
To date, researchers have identified about 20 different types of tracks. The footprints include three-toed tracks belonging to carnivorous theropods that walked on two legs, as well as tracks believed to have been made by armoured dinosaurs like stegosaurs.
Some of the Broome dinosaur tracks are similar to those found at Lark Quarry in central-western Queensland, which the team recently determined were probably made by a large, two-legged plant-eating dinosaur similar to Muttaburrasaurus.
The Broome tracks are similar to those made elsewhere by Muttaburrasaurus
There are also large cylindrical depressions stamped into the earth by at least five different types of long-necked, long-tailed sauropods.
These are the only sauropod tracks in Australia and some of the depressions measure longer than 1.5m.
“They’re beyond the size that you normally expect dinosaur tracks to be,” says Dr Salisbury.
“We’re talking huge, huge tracks, probably made by some of the biggest animals to ever walk the planet.”
The tracks are found along coastal rock shelves and reefs, which are subject to some of the most extreme tides in Australia, with water levels rising 10 to 11m daily, he says.
Many are only exposed for a few hours each day, and only a few days each year, meaning the team has to work quickly.
“It’s a dynamic landscape, and we’ve seen tracks disappear altogether in the time we’ve been working there. Some get buried by shifting sands, while others are destroyed by pounding surf,” says Dr Salisbury.
To speed up the process of mapping and imaging the tracks, the team has adopted a range of new remote sensing technologies.
In addition to making physical moulds of the footprints using a rapid-setting silicon rubber and taking photographs on ground-mounted tripods, the team is now using a handheld LiDAR unit developed by Australia’s national science organisation, the CSIRO.
Dr Salisbury and colleagues can work out how the dinosaurs were moving by using the drones to view them from the air
They are also taking aerial photographs of the track sites using a remote controlled drone and a specialised, low-speed aircraft, which is also fitted with LiDAR.
A LiDAR uses pulsating laser light coupled with a global positioning system. It records the points where the laser light reflects off hard surfaces, combining data from multiple passes to generate a detailed 3D map of the coastline, says Prof Jorg Hacker, director of Airborne Research Australia at Flinders University.
Prof Hacker, the other main investigator on the project, says that for a 3km stretch of beach he usually spends about 1.5 hours flying his motor glider, making roughly 30 passes at altitudes between 20 to 100 metres.
Dr Salisbury says his team can now contextualise the tracks over larger geographic areas, and can better understand which direction the dinosaurs were travelling, whether they were walking or running, and if they were interacting or crossing the landscape in groups, searching for food, or trying to escape predators.
“We can, to a degree, accurately reconstruct scenes that happened 130 million years ago. That’s not imagination, that’s piecing it together from the evidence found in the rocks,” he says.
Best in the world?
“It’s a powerful way of bringing these ancient worlds back to life.”
Footprints require favourable circumstances to fossilise but when that happens a broad array of information is captured in the fossils, says Professor Anthony Martin, a palaeontologist from Emory University in the US specialising in animal tracks, who is not involved in the project.
“From a single, well-preserved dinosaur track way, we can determine the approximate type of dinosaur, its size, its speed, gait, and even how it was reacting to other dinosaurs or the landscape around it,” says Prof Martin.
“Once these tracks are properly surveyed, I would not be surprised if this area turns out to be one of the best dinosaur track sites in the world,” he says.
Once the dinosaurs died out Australia was occupied by the Mega Fauna. Wombats the size of a VW Beetle. Twenty foot tall Kangaroos and the largest carnivorous marsupial – Thylocaleo Carnifex – the Marsupial Lion.
Here is the documentary we made with NOVA and NHK on the excavation from a deep cave underneath Australia’s Nullarbor Plane, of the only fully intact thylacoleo skeleton