Species of Megafauna
There are an enormous variety of species of Australian megafauna, with many of their familiar descendants or relatives known to us today. Spanning multiple animal kingdoms, whether marsupial, monotreme, reptile, or bird, megafauna was found across the continent, until roughly 10,000 years ago. Some of the more notable, or impressive species include:
The largest of Australia‘s known megafauna species, the diprotodon is a relative of modern day wombats and koalas, being a quadrupedal marsupial weighing up to 3,000 kilograms and standing 2m tall at the shoulder. Diprotodon was a herbivorous grazing animal, with few natural predators due to its enormous size. It is thought that the diprotodon is one possible candidate for the aboriginal legend of the ‘bunyip‘, with its bones often being identified as such, and sharing a number of characteristics with the legend. Diprotodon went extinct roughly 44,000 years ago, though given some accounts of Aboriginal habitation go back as far as 120,000 years, even a conservative estimate points to this as a real possibility.
Otherwise known as the marsupial lion, this carnivorous marsupial was Australia‘s largest meat eating mammal, it grew to about a metre and a half long, and weighed roughly 160kg, similar to a mature female lion or tiger. Despite being colloquially known as a ‘lion’, this creature was more closely related to today’s wombats and koalas, and sported a unique physiology that helped it take down its prey. The marsupial lion is unique amongst marsupials in its physiology, featuring retractable claws, a semi opposable thumb with gigantic hooked claws, a short stout nose, and fused plate-like teeth for cutting and tearing. This suggests that the marsupial lion likely took down its prey, such as the giant wombat or giant kangaroo, by hooking up, and climbing up their bodies, before killing them with the most powerful bite-force per square inch of any mammal, living or extinct.
When in comes to marsupial megafauna, procoptodon goliah, or the giant kangaroo, is one of the better known. Standing, just over 2m tall, and weighing as much as 240kg, this enormous kangaroo shared much in common with its smaller cousin today, though there are a number of key physiological differences. Unlike its modern relatives, these giant kangaroos had far shorter snouts, featuring a far more compressed jaw common to other members of the species. It also had far longer arms than modern kangaroos, likely used for grasping branches, as well as a single large fused toe. Though this kangaroo stood at a similar height to a large modern red kangaroo, it was much sturdier and powerful in build, being about 2 and a half times as heavy as its modern counterpart.
Aside from Australia‘s marsupial megafauna, there were a number of giant reptiles that were also found during this era. Of these, the largest reptile was megalania, an enormous goanna that served as the apex predator of its time. Found across Australia, megalania was akin to a komodo dragon or goanna in appearance, though much larger and deadlier, being fast, huge, and with a powerful, venomous bite. Megalania was the largest of Australia‘s huge reptilian carnivores, growing up to 7 metres in length, and weighing as much as 1,940 kg, though these measures have been disputed due to varying finds and estimates. Regardless of exactly how large it was, it is likely that Megalania was the apex predator of its time, with fossil evidence noting teeth marks on the bones of a number of megafauna fossils. Though megalania went extinct about 50,000 years ago it is likely early aboriginal Australians could’ve encountered some of these terrifying lizards, though as time progressed, they, like many other megafauna species dwindled and eventually disappeared.
A huge flightless bird, the genyornis was the last of the great ‘thunder birds’ endemic to Australia. Standing at a height of 2 metres, and weighing about 240 kilograms, this bird was the largest of its time, as well as the last of its genetic family, with its ancestors such as the late Miocene Dromornis stirtoni, growing even larger and heavier. Unlike other large Australian birds such as the emu and cassowary, the genyornis actually shares its ancestry with birds such as geese or ducks, albeit at quite the distance. It is thought that despite its enormous size, and powerful crushing beak, the genyornis and its ancestors were actually herbivorous grazers, with their size allowing them to range across huge distances, much like the modern emu. Genyornis also shared the Australian continent with aboriginal Australians for tens of thousands of years, with depictions found in cave, and rock art dating back tens of thousands of years.