Mammals' tusked ancestor roamed Australia

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Scientists say rare fossils found in Tasmania's south-east prove that an ancient species of prehistoric animal did exist throughout Australia. The dicynodont was an early ancestor of modern-day mammals and lived about 250 million years ago.

Roughly the size of a cow, the plant-eating animal had two tusks and a horny beak. Queensland Museum palaeontologist Andrew Rozefelds says they lived on every continent, including Antarctica.

But until now, the only Australian specimen was found in Queensland almost 30 years ago. He says it is surprising more remains have not been found, given the animal's size.

"There must be more material out there to be found," he said. "Obviously we'd love to find more, because at the moment, [of] this entire group of animals called dicynodonts, there's only about four bones known from Australia. We've got better fossil records from Antarctica for these animals than we have for Australia."

He describes the dicynodont as a bizarre-looking creature. "They're a strange-looking beast," he said. "They had tusks at the front of their skull, which makes you think maybe they were a carnivore but in fact they were a plant eater. They had slightly splayed legs, so their posture was quite different to say some of the modern mammals you see and they're very, very distantly related to modern mammals."

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