Prehistoric 'Tasmanian Tiger' was a Tiny Killer. Page 2

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The skull of an ancient thylacinid from the Riversleigh World Heritage Area in Australia.
Anna Gillespie, University of New South Wales

Modeling a marsupial

The researchers created a 3D computer model of the Nimbacinus skull to realistically simulate how the skull may have behaved. Digitally reconstructing the whole skull posed a challenge, as the top of its cranium had been slightly crushed and only half of its lower jaw, or mandible, was intact. "It was like opening a jigsaw puzzle box, only to find crucial missing pieces," Attard told Live Science.

The scientists then compared the mechanical performance of the Nimbacinus skull with that of the extinct thylacine. They also compared its performance to that of living marsupial carnivores such as the Tasmanian devil, spotted-tailed quoll and northern quoll. These belong to a different and diverse family of marsupial carnivores, the dasyurids.

In a surprise, the researchers discovered the mechanical performance of the Nimbacinus skull was far more similar to the spotted-tailed quoll, a member of a different family of marsupial carnivores, than to the Nimbacinus' closer relative, the thylacine.

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These findings suggest Nimbacinus had a powerful bite for its size, was mostly carnivorous and was probably capable of hunting prey larger than itself.

"Our biomechanical analysis of the skull of Nimbacinusrevealed that it was likely an opportunistic hunter of the rainforest and had a broadly similar way of life to that of larger living dasyurids such as the spotted-tailed quoll," Attard said. "It likely preyed upon small- to medium-sized birds, frogs, lizards and snakes, as well as a wide range of marsupials, including possums, bandicoots, dasyurids, ancient ancestors of koalas, small wallabies, thingodontans [extinct marsupials with boomerang-shaped molars], marsupial moles and wombats. This suggests possible convergent evolution between Nimbacinus and the spotted-tailed quoll, meaning that these two species independently evolved similar adaptations to similar environments." [6 Extinct Animals That Could Come Back]

In contrast, the recently extinct Tasmanian tiger was considerably more specialized in what it could eat than Nimbacinus and large living dasyurids. This likely made the Tasmanian tiger more restricted in the range of prey it could hunt, "and more vulnerable to extinction," Attard said.

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Reconstructing past communities and the ecologies of the species that contribute to them "is pivotal if we are to map out and understand change over time," Wroe told Live Science in an email. "Trying to understand how these animals lived and what they ate is also fun!"

Future analysis of the Nimbacinus skeleton could reveal if it was partially tree dwelling like the spotted-tailed quoll, which could help explain the similarities the researchers have noted so far between the two marsupial species.

The scientists detailed their findings online April 9 in the journal PLOS ONE.

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