Extinct Kitten-Sized Marsupial Lion Named After David Attenborough

Artis'ts impression of Microleo Attenboroughi in its natural habitat. Peter Schouten

An extinct marsupial lion has been added to the long list of species named in honor of Sir David Attenborough. The newly-discovered Microleo attenboroughi weighed just 600 grams (1.5 pounds) but bears a distinct family resemblance to some fearsome beasts of more recent times.

Far back in an era when Australia was much wetter than it is today, marsupial lions filled many of the niches for carnivorous beasts on the continent. Although not related to African lions, the name reflects the strong resemblance the last survivor, Thylacoleo carnifex, bore to the big cats.

"Microleo attenboroughi would have been more like the cute, but still feisty, kitten of the family," said Dr Anna Gillespie of the University of New South Wales in a statement. “It's likely that Microleo scampered amongst the tree-tops, gobbling insects as well as small vertebrates such as lizards and birds while simultaneously trying to avoid becoming a prey item for its larger relatives." Gillespie is first author of the paper in Palaeontologia Electronica describing Microleo attenboroughi

Size comparison between Microleo attenboroughi and the three other genera of marsupial lions,Priscileo, Wakaleo and Thylacoleo. UNSW

Other members of the family at the time include a species the size of a domestic cat and one more like a typical dog. Besides their own relatives, the marsupial lions competed with species more closely related to the recently extinct Thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, and other strange predators

The tooth from Microleo attenboroughi compared with the tooth row of its Pleistocene relative, the lion-sized Thylacoleo carnifex. UNSW

Only a single specimen of Microleo has been found, dating from 19 million years ago in the Riversleigh World Heritage Area in north-west Queensland. The single fossil is far from complete, so no one knows if it possessed the vicious claw that contributed to Thylacoleo’s capacity to tackle Australia’s ancient three-ton wombats.

“We’ve got the important bit, though,” Gillespie told IFLScience. “We have the third premolar, the huge cutting tooth that is a feature of all marsupial lions.” This tooth, shaped like a blade, was used by the family to slice into any prey unfortunate enough to be hunted by a member of the family.

The range of carnivores in Riversleigh reflected the extraordinary richness of prey species, Gillespie added. “The diversity at the time was comparable to what we now see in Borneo, so there were lots of niches for predators.” As the continent dried out the smaller marsupial lions were replaced with Dasyurids, such as quolls and antechinuses.

An artist's impression of Nevil's Garden, the dig site at Riversleigh where Microleo was found, including the larger marsupial lion Wakaleo. Dorothy Dunphy

David Attenborough has already been honored with the names of at least ten other species, most famously a long-beaked echidna that may or may not be extinct. Gillespie told IFLScience the reason to name another species after the documentary presenter is his role in promoting the Riversleigh deposits.

“He has called Riversleigh one of the four most significant fossil sites in the world. At most places we just get a snapshot in time, but Riversleigh spans 26 million years, allowing us to document the changing fauna in one place, and David has been instrumental in publicizing that,” she said.

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