Bear + Tapir + Wombat = Palorchestes!

Hey there every peoples!

Long time, no see, busy, blah blah blah. Serious crap went down that have set me back as far as the Grand Vision goes. I considered writing about it but i don’t want to bore you with the details. It would have also tied into the commercial/professional debate and i think we ALL have had enough of that for now. So instead, I decided I’m going to talk about a corner of Paleontology that doesn’t get much attention: the fossils of Australia.

Cut off from the rest of the world during the whole of the Cenozoic, Australia developed a unique fauna unlike anything else in the history of the earth. I’m doing the Cenozoic because that’s my main area of focus. Plus, Australia’s dinosaur record is relatively poorly understood (though many outfits are currently fixing that). So i am going to spend a month talking about the Pleistocene megafauna of Australia. Why Pleistocene? It’s the best know of Australia’s past and the Pleistocene is one of my favorite time periods. And we’re gonna start off with one of the weirder denizens of the Pleistocene wilds. An animal who looks like an amalgamation of different animals: Palorchestes.

Way back in the early days of paleontology, Sir Richard Owen was busy describing everything he could get his hands on. This included a shipment of fossils from the newly found penal colony of Australia. Included among them was a jaw with teeth from a large marsupial. At first he thought that it came from a type of kangaroo, albeit much larger and more robust than any living today. He named it Palorchestes, meaning “ancient leaper”. As with many things named by Owen, a clearer picture of the animal was obtained with more complete fossils.

Partial skull of Palorchestes,. Owen, 1873

Partial skull of Palorchestes,. Owen, 1873

Partial skull of Palorchestes,. Owen, 1873

Partial skull of Palorchestes,. Owen, 1873

These new finds revealed Palorchestes to be a very different animal. Rather than a kangaroo, they showed that Palorchestes was closer to an extinct group of marsupials called Diprotodonts. Eventually Palorchestes would be placed in its own  family, the Palorchestidae. Many species are known, ranging from Palorchestes painei in the late Miocene to Palorchestes azael in the Pleistocene. The former is the earliest known while the later is the last known. Being a member of the Pleistocene megafauna, P. azael was the largest species, weighing a hefty 450 pounds.

Palorchestes painei, looking downright chummy in an issue of National Geographic.

Palorchestes azael. This beautiful reconstruction comes from the excellent book “Prehistoric Mammals of Australia and New Guinea: One Hundred Million Years of Evolution”

Thanks to rich deposits at Alcoota (P. panei) and numerous cave deposits (P. azael), we now know Palorchestes was a very robust animal with powerful forelimbs. Those forelimbs ended in large sharp claws. It’s teeth were designed to chew very abrasive vegetation, and some think the shape of the lower jaw could have accommodated a long, wiry tongue. Skulls found at Alcoota showed that Palorchestes had very retracted nasal openings like those of a tapir. As such, Palorchestes became known as the marsupial tapir. For a long time only skulls of P. painei were known, but given the close relationship between P. painei and P. azael, scientists thought it reasonable that the later also had a trunk. So with the arms and claws of a bear, the nose of a tapir, the tongue of an anteater, and the reproduction of a marsupial, Palorchestes looked poised to take a commanding lead in the “weirdest animals of all time”.

Skull of Palorchestes painei, from the late Miocene site of Alcoota, Central Australia. On display at the Museum of Central Australia.

Or maybe not. While the interwebs for illustrations, i came across a couple of interesting pages. The first details a skull of P. azael found in a cave near Buchan, Victoria. The skull, while in pieces, is still rather complete. In fact the second webpage, on the site of the Museum of Victoria, says it’s the most complete skull of P. azael known.

Complete lower jaw of the Buchan skull.

The much sought after cranium.

All the pieces put together.

The Museum of Victoria’s reconstruction of the Buchan skull

The Victoria Museum page features a reconstruction of P. azael, presumably based on the new skull. Needless to say, it’s a new and rather different take on the animal:

The new, alternate reconstruction of Palochestes azael, from the Museum of Victoria.

I’d love to know the logic behind this. The page doesn’t explain anything. Is the new look because of the height of the skull? The size of the nasal bone? Unfortunately they don’t go into any detail. Until they do, i think the classic image of a tapir like trunk will continue to reign.

Trunk or no, Palorchestes was in a class all it’s own. What did it do for a living? As noted earlier its teeth seem designed to chew very tough and abrasive vegetation. This combined with the huge claws and suspected presence of a wiry tongue have led to scientists thinking it fed on bark and roots, using the huge claws to rip bark off trees and dig up roots. Paleontologist Tim Flannery even describes them as “tree wreckers”. This presumed mode of feeding and methods of achieving it have led some to label them as Australia’s version of a ground sloth. I think there is a much better ground sloth analogue than Palorchestes, but that’s for another post.

And with that, “Australia Month” is underway. Stay tuned for more strange and wondrous beast from the Land Down Under.

Till next time!

2 thoughts on “Bear + Tapir + Wombat = Palorchestes!

  1. Hi
    Just wondering if anyone is interested in my find! I have found some teeth from a MARSUPIAL TAPIA!
    I have over the last six months found two bottom incisors, and a section of jaw with all the front top teeth, and two separate sections of top jaw with most of the top teeth or molars! All look like they are from the same Animal. But not sure because the molars are much bigger then the front teeth! But the front teeth are a good match with the bottom ones because they mesh together perfectly!
    So I think my find is quit rare because I haven’t found any photos that show the bottom incisors like the ones I have!
    I also have some strange bones that I would like identified,
    I can send photos if your interested
    Cheers

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