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Wednesday, 6 September, 2000, 09:08 GMT 10:08 UK
Australia finds its lost animals
Australian Museum/Carl Bento
The exhibition is based on recent discoveries
A flesh-eating kangaroo and a crocodile that jumped down on its prey from the trees are drawing the crowds in Sydney, Australia.

The extinct animals are just two examples of the extraordinary giant creatures that once roamed the continent.

Australian Museum/Paul Ovenden
The marsupial lion was Australia's largest carnivorous mammal.
Their remains have only recently been unearthed and are throwing new light on the so-called megafauna that lived in the region many thousands and even millions of years ago and more.

An exhibition - Australia's Lost Kingdoms - presents life-sized representations of some of the creatures. It includes a turtle as big as a small car and a carnivorous duck equipped with a bill the size and shape of an axe.

Professor Mike Archer, director at the Australian Museum, says new scientific discoveries show Australia was once a land of giants.

"Contrary to what the Americans have tried to tell us - that the biggest of everything comes from Texas - in the way of dinosaurs the biggest things were actually in Australia. We had monsters that made the rest of the world's dinosaurs look like geckos!"

Meat cleavers

One of those monsters was a seven-metre long goanna lizard (Megalania prisca). An adult would have weighed up to 600 kg. Then there were the tree-climbing crocodiles, (Trilophosuchus rackhami) nicknamed the "drop crocs" for the way they are thought to have leapt down on to their victims.

"And if that didn't get you," Professor Archer said, "there were meat-eating kangaroos that would have stood up at your shoulder and torn your arm off.

Australian Museum/Carl Bento
Fulgurotherium roamed Australia 110 million years ago
"This was no Skippy. Another was a creature we called the "demon duck of doom' (Dromornis stirtoni). It's the largest bird that lived anywhere in the world. But as if that wasn't enough of a problem, at three metres in height and about 400 kg in size, this thing was a flesh-eater."

Professor Archer says a species of marsupial lion (Thylacoleo carnifex) which existed more than 40,000 years ago could weigh up to 160 kilograms - as big as the largest sabre-toothed tiger roaming Asia and Europe.

A model of the creature features in the exhibition and shows it to have the fur of a wombat, the nose of a koala and claws like meat cleavers.

Climate change

Dr Anne Musser, a palaeontologist at the Australian Museum who directed the reconstruction of many of the models on display, believes science can explain why so many of the animals grew so big.

"It was a worldwide phenomenon," she says. "It seems to be that a lot of lineages basically became more specialised. They tended to get larger in response to climate change, as well.

Australian Museum/Paul Ovenden
This kangaroo had a taste for flesh.
"As the climate started to dry and cool, particularly, animals tended to get larger. And a lot of the megafauna culminated in the cool, if not icy conditions of the Pleistocene (1.8 million to 11,000 years ago). And Australia was no exception.

Scientists have based their new interpretation on fossils found in sites like the one at Riversleigh in outback Queensland. Palaeontologist Phil Creaser says animal remains have been preserved better there than almost anywhere else in the world.

"The waters that they either fell in or were moved by were very rich in calcium carbonate. This is the limestone rock that we see today.

"What we assume has happened is that these fossils, or the animals once they've fallen in these waters and pools, quickly had a coat of this calcium carbonate, the limestone around them. They became entombed, which means that you've got nearly perfect preservation.

"There's been no movement of the fossils. There've been no scavengers to chew them up."

Human habitation

Perhaps most intriguing of all is the knowledge that many of these animals, including the marsupial lion, existed at the same time as the earliest Aboriginal inhabitants of Australia, who are thought to have come to the continent around 50,000 years ago.

"In fact all of the animals that you see in the exhibition - the huge horned turtle, the marsupial lion and the large kangaroo overlapped with humans," Dr Musser says.

The large kangaroo has been found at a site called Cuddie Springs in conjunction with human habitation."

Today, Australia is losing species at a rate not seen since the extinction of the dinosaurs. The museum hopes that its exhibition, which runs until next April, will help people better understand the past - and learn to conserve the present.

Australia's Lost Kingdoms will visit the UK in 2002.

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