Researchers describe new kangaroo fossil from Papua New Guinea
Australian palaeontologists from Flinders University have described a new genus of giant fossil kangaroos from the mountains of central Papua New Guinea.
The new description of the fossil kangaroo has revealed that it is not closely related to Australian kangaroos, but most likely belongs to a unique genus of more primitive kangaroos found only in Papua New Guinea.
The kangaroo, first described in 1983 by Professor Tim Flannery, is known from fossils about 20,000-50,000 years old. They come from the Nombe Rockshelter, an archaeological and paleontological site in Chimbu Province, Papua New Guinea (PNG).
Nombe is already known for several extinct species of kangaroo and giant four-legged marsupials called diprotodontids.
Flinders University researchers have renamed the animal Nombe nombe, after the site of its discovery, and plan to return to PNG next year for further excavations and research.
The stocky, muscular Nombe lived in a diverse mountain rainforest with dense undergrowth and a closed canopy. Here it evolved to eat the tough leaves of trees and shrubs, with a thick jawbone and strong chewing muscles.
Much of New Guinea’s wildlife is little known outside the island, despite its color and distinctiveness. This discovery breathes new life into the exploration of New Guinea’s fauna.
“New Guinea’s fauna is fascinating, but very few Australians have a good idea of what really is there,” said Flinders paleontology Ph.D. candidate Isaac Kerr.
“There are several species of large, long-nosed, worm-eating echidnas that are still around today, many different species of wallaby and opossum that we don’t get in Australia, and even more in the fossil record.
“We think of these animals as uniquely Australian, but they have this intriguing other life in New Guinea.”
Using 3D imaging and other technology, the researchers studied remains of the PNG Museum and Art Gallery. They now believe the species evolved from an ancient form of kangaroo that spread to New Guinea in the late Miocene, about 5-8 million years ago.
During that time, the islands of New Guinea and mainland Australia were connected by a “land bridge” because of the lower sea level, rather than being separated by the flooded Torres Strait as they are today. This “bridge” allowed early Australian mammals, including several giant extinct forms, to move into the rainforests of New Guinea.
However, when the Torres Strait was flooded again, these animal populations separated from their Australian relatives and evolved separately to match their tropical, mountainous PNG home.
Nombe is now considered to be the descendant of one of these ancient kangaroos genera.
In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, sporadic paleontological work was done by American and Australian researchers, much of which resulted in fascinating discoveries of extinct megafauna. However, no paleontological excavations have taken place there since the early 1990s, a situation that Flinders University researchers are trying to remedy.
Co-author of the new Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia article, Flinders University Professor Gavin Prideaux, says research will be expanded thanks to a grant from the Australia Pacific Science Foundation.
“We are very excited to be doing three paleontological excavations over the next three years at two different sites in eastern and central PNG,” he said.
“We will work with the curators of the Papua New Guinea Museum and Art Gallery and other contacts in PNG, with whom we hope to build local interest in New Guinea paleontology.”
Fossil species the size of Quokka show kangaroos evolving to eat leaves for the fourth time
A new genus of fossil kangaroos from late Pleistocene New Guinea, Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia (2022). DOI: 10.1080/0372146.2022.2086518
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