Diprotodon, meaning "two forward teeth",[1] is the largest known marsupial to have ever lived. Along with many other members of a group of species collectively known as the "Australian megafauna", it existed from about 1.6 million years ago until extinction some 46,000 years ago[2] (through most of the Pleistocene epoch).

Temporal range: Pleistocene, 1.6–0.046 Ma
Cast of a Diprotodon skeleton, MNHN, Paris
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Infraclass: Marsupialia
Order: Diprotodontia
Family: Diprotodontidae
Genus: Diprotodon
Type species
Diprotodon optatum
Owen, 1838
  • D. australis Owen, 1844
  • D. annextans McCoy, 1861
  • D. bennettii Krefft, 1873
  • D. loderi Krefft, 1873,
  • D. longiceps McCoy, 1865
  • D. minor Huxley, 1862

Diprotodon species fossils have been found in sites across mainland Australia,[n 1] including complete skulls and skeletons, hair, and foot impressions.[1] Female skeletons have been found with babies located where the mother's pouch would have been.[1] The largest specimens were hippopotamus-sized: about 3 m (9.8 ft) from nose to tail, standing 2 m (6.6 ft) tall at the shoulder and weighing about 2,790 kg (6,150 lb).[4][5][n 2] Diprotodonts may have been depicted on Aboriginal rock art images in Quinkan traditional country (Queensland, Australia).[6][7] They inhabited open forest, woodlands, and grasslands, possibly staying close to water, and eating leaves, shrubs, and some grasses.

The closest surviving relatives of Diprotodon are the wombats and the koala. Diprotodonts may have been an inspiration for the legends of the bunyip, as some Aboriginal tribes identify Diprotodon bones as those of "bunyips".[8]


The first recorded Diprotodon remains were discovered in a cave near Wellington, New South Wales, in the early 1830s by bushman George Ranken and Major Thomas Mitchell; the latter sent them to England for study by Sir Richard Owen.[9] In the 1840s, Ludwig Leichhardt discovered many Diprotodon bones eroding from the banks of creeks in the Darling Downs of Queensland, and when reporting the find to Owen, commented that the remains were so well preserved, he expected to find living examples in the then-unexplored central regions of Australia.

The majority of fossil finds are of demographic groups indicative of diprotodonts dying in drought conditions. For example, hundreds of individuals were found in Lake Callabonna with well-preserved lower bodies, but crushed and distorted heads.[10] Several family groups are thought to have sunk in mud while crossing the drying lake bed. Other finds consist of age groupings of young or old animals, which are first to die during a drought.

In 2012, a significant group of about 40 was found at Eulo, south-west Queensland.[11]


Diprotodon was named by Owen (1838). It was assigned to the Diprotodontidae by McKenna and Bell (1997). The historical classification of Diprotodon consisted of eight species (D. optatum Owen, 1838; D. australis Owen, 1844; D. annextans McCoy, 1861; D. minor Huxley, 1862; D. longiceps McCoy 1865; D. loderi Krefft, 1873a; D. bennettii Krefft, 1873b (nec D. bennettii Owen, 1877); and D. bennettii Owen, 1877 (nec D. bennettii Krefft, 1873b); based on size or slight morphological differences of single specimens collected from isolated geographic regions.[10] Bimodal dental sizes, rather than a continuum of tooth sizes, and identical male and female dental morphology, indicate sexual dimorphism instead of separate species, thus providing strong evidence that the eight species are synonyms for D. optatum.[10]


Diprotodon superficially resembled a rhinoceros without a horn. Its feet turned inwards like a wombat’s, giving it a pigeon-toed appearance. It had strong claws on the front feet and its pouch opening faced backwards. Its footprints have been found showing a covering of hair, which indicates it had a coat similar to a modern wombat.

Until recently, how many species of Diprotodon had existed was unknown. Eight species are described, although many researchers believed these actually represented only three at most, while some estimated about 20 in total could exist.


Recent research compared the variation between all of the described Diprotodon species with the variation in one of Australia’s largest living marsupials, the eastern grey kangaroo, and found the range was comparable, with a near continent-wide distribution.[10] This left only two possible Diprotodon species differing only in size with the smaller being around half the size of the larger. According to Gause’s "competitive exclusion principle", no two species with identical ecological requirements can coexist in a stable environment. However, both the small and large diprotodonts coexisted throughout the Pleistocene and the size difference is similar to other sexually dimorphic living marsupials. Further evidence is the battle damage common in competing males found on the larger specimens, but absent from the smaller. Dental morphology also supports sexual dimorphism, with highly sexually dimorphic marsupials, such as the grey kangaroo, having different tooth sizes between males and females, but both sexes having the same dental morphology. An identical dental morphology occurs in the large and small Diprotodon.[10] The taxonomic implication is that Owen’s original Diprotodon optatum is the only valid species.

A single sexually dimorphic species allows behavioural interpretations. All sexually dimorphic species of over 5 kg (11 lb) exhibit a polygynous breeding strategy. A modern example of this is the gender segregation of elephants, where females and the young form family groups, while lone males fight for the right to mate with all the females of the group. This behaviour is consistent with fossil finds where adult/juvenile fossil assemblages usually contain only female adult remains.[12][13]

Cyclic variations in the strontium isotope ratios within the tooth enamel of a 300,000-year-old fossil imply that Diprotodon undertook seasonal migrations, making it the only known extinct or extant metatherian to do so.[14] The carbon-13 enamel content was found to have little variation, suggesting a relatively consistent diet through the course of a year containing a mix of both C3 and C4 plants.[14]


Most modern researchers, including Richard Roberts and Tim Flannery, argue that diprotodonts, along with a wide range of other Australian megafauna, became extinct shortly after humans arrived in Australia about 50,000 years ago.[2]

Some older researchers, including Richard Wright, argue on the contrary that diprotodont remains from several sites, such as Tambar Springs[15] and Trinkey and Lime Springs[16][17] suggest that Diprotodon survived much longer, into the Holocene. Other more recent researchers, including Lesley Head and Judith Field, favour an extinction date of 28,000 to 30,000 years ago, which would mean that humans coexisted with Diprotodon for some 20,000 years.[18] However, opponents of "late extinction" theories have interpreted such late dates based on indirect dating methods as artifacts resulting from redeposition of skeletal material into more recent strata,[2][19] and recent direct dating results obtained with new technologies have tended to confirm this interpretation.[20][21]

Three theories have been advanced to explain the mass extinction.

Climate change

Australia has undergone a very long process of gradual aridification since it split off from Gondwanaland about 40 million years ago. From time to time, the process reversed for a period, but overall, the trend has been strongly toward lower rainfall. The recent ice ages produced no significant glaciation in mainland Australia, but long periods of cold and very dry weather. This dry weather during the last ice age may have killed off all the large diprotodonts.

Critics point out a number of problems with this theory. First, large diprotodonts had already survived a long series of similar ice ages, and no particular reason is apparent that the most recent one should have achieved what all the previous ice ages had failed to do. Also, climate change apparently peaked 25,000 years after the extinctions. Finally, even during climatic extremes, some parts of the continent always remain relatively exempt; for example, the tropical north stays fairly warm and wet in all climatic circumstances, while alpine valleys are less affected by drought, and so on.

Human hunting

The overkill theory is that human hunters killed and ate the diprotodonts, causing their extinction. The extinctions appear to have coincided with the arrival of humans on the continent, and in broad terms, Diprotodon was the largest and least well-defended species that died out. Similar hunting-out happened with the megafauna of New Zealand, Madagascar, and many smaller islands around the world (such as New Caledonia, Cyprus, Crete, and at least in part, in the Americas), probably within a thousand years or so. Recent finds of Diprotodon bones that appear to display butchering marks lend support to this theory. Critics of this theory regard it as simplistic, arguing that (unlike New Zealand and America), little direct evidence of hunting has been found, and the dates on which the theory rests are too uncertain to be reliable. However, the high-resolution chronology of the changes supports the hypothesis that human hunting alone eliminated the megafauna.[22][23][24][25]

Human land management

The third theory says that humans indirectly caused the extinction of diprotodonts by destroying the ecosystem on which they depended. In particular, early Aboriginal people are thought to have been fire-stick farmers using fire regularly and persistently to drive game, open up dense thickets of vegetation, and create fresh green regrowth for both humans and game animals to eat. Evidence for the fire hypothesis is the sudden increase in widespread ash deposits at the time that people arrived in Australia, as well as land-management and hunting practices of modern Aboriginal people as recorded by the earliest European settlers before Aboriginal society was devastated by European contact and disease. Evidence against the hypothesis is the fact that humans appear to have eliminated the megafauna of Tasmania without using fire to modify the environment there.[26][27][28]

Multiple causes

The above hypotheses are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Each of proposed mechanisms can potentially support the other two. For example, while burning an area of fairly thick forest and thus turning it into a more open, grassy environment might reduce the viability of a large browser (an animal that eats leaves and shoots rather than grasses), the reverse could also be true: removing the browsing animals within a few years produces a very thick undergrowth which, when a fire eventually starts through natural causes (as fires tend to do every few hundred years), burns with greater than usual ferocity. The burnt-out area is then repopulated with a greater proportion of fire-loving plant species (notably eucalypts, some acacias, and most of the native grasses) which are unsuitable habitat for most browsing animals. Either way, the trend is toward the modern Australian environment of highly flammable open sclerophyllous forests, woodlands and grasslands, none of which are suitable for large, slow-moving browsing animals—and either way, the changed microclimate produces substantially less rainfall.

An examination of swamp sediment cores spanning the last 130,000 years from Lynch's Crater in Queensland suggests that hunting may have been the primary cause of the extinction. Analysis of Sporormiella fungal spores (which derive mainly from the dung of megaherbivores) in the cores shows that the megafauna of that region virtually disappeared about 41,000 years ago, at a time when climate changes were minimal; the change was accompanied by an increase in charcoal, and was followed by a transition from rainforest to fire-tolerant sclerophyll vegetation.[22][23][24] The high-resolution chronology of the changes indicates that fire increased about a century after the disappearance of browsing megafauna, probably due to accumulation of fuel. Grass increased over the next several centuries; sclerophyll vegetation increased following a lag of another century, and a sclerophyll forest developed about a thousand years later.[24] Earlier increases in sclerophyll vegetation during shifts to cooler, drier conditions about 120,000 and 75,000 years ago did not have any obvious impact on megafaunal abundance.[24]

See also


  1. Including Kangaroo Island[3]
  2. The estimated mean body mass for the 17 adult specimens studied, calculated from the minimum midshaft circumferences of the femur and humerus, is 2,786 kg. The 95% confidence interval for this value ranges from 2,272 kg to 3,417 kg.[5]


  1. "Science & Nature: Animals: Diprotodon". Official website. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). July 2008. Archived from the original on 2012-02-08. Retrieved 24 February 2011.
  2. Roberts, R. G.; Flannery, T. F.; Ayliffe, L. K.; Yoshida, H.; Olley, J. M.; Prideaux, G. J.; Laslett, G. M.; Baynes, A.; Smith, M. A.; Jones, R.; Smith, B. L. (8 June 2001). "New Ages for the Last Australian Megafauna: Continent-Wide Extinction About 46,000 Years Ago" (PDF). Science. 292 (5523): 1888–1892. Bibcode:2001Sci...292.1888R. doi:10.1126/science.1060264. PMID 11397939. Retrieved 26 August 2011.
  3. Fedorowytsch T.. 2017. Fossil footprints reveal Kangaroo Island's diverse ancient wildlife. ABC Net News. Retrieved on July 24, 2017
  4. John Pickrell, Ice Age Marsupial Topped Three Tons, Scientists Say, National Geographic News, October 17, 2003.
  5. Wroe, S.; Crowther, M.; Dortch, J.; Chong, J. (2004-02-07). "The size of the largest marsupial and why it matters". Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 271: S34–S36. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2003.0095. PMC 1810005. PMID 15101412.
  6. "Science notebook - Australian rock painting". The Day. 4 April 1987. Retrieved 7 April 2014.
  7. Trezise, Percy (1992), Paintings of extinct animals in Quinkan rock art, retrieved 19 November 2019
  8. Shuker, Karl P. N. (1995). "5". In search of prehistoric animals; Do giant extinct creatures still exist? (1st ed.). Blanchford. ISBN 978-0-7137-2469-1. As far back as 1924, Dr C.W. Anderson of the Australian Museum had suggested that stories of the bunyip could derive from aboriginal legends of the extinct diprotodonts — a view repeated much more recently in Kadimakara (1985) by Australian zoologists Drs. Tim Flannery and Michael Archer, who nominated the palorchestids as plausible candidates.
  9. Holden, R.; Holden, N. (2001). Bunyips: Australia's Folklore of Fear. National Library Australia. ISBN 978-0642107329.
  10. Price, G. J. (August 2006). "Taxonomy and palaeobiology of the largest-ever marsupial, Diprotodon Owen, 1838 (Diprotodontidae, Marsupialia)". Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society. 153 (2): 369–397. doi:10.1111/j.1096-3642.2008.00387.x.
  11. Giant marsupials' graveyard unearthed in Queensland By Chrissy Arthur - Australian Broadcasting Corporation - Retrieved 21 July 2012.
  12. Sex secrets of a prehistoric marsupial Archived 2008-06-19 at the Wayback Machine Cosmos Magazine 11 June 2008
  13. Australian Science Magazine June 2008 Pleistocene Goliath; Gilbert Price
  14. Price, G. J.; Ferguson, K. J.; Webb, G. E.; Feng, Y.; Higgins, P.; Nguyen, A. D.; Zhao, J.; Joannes-Boyau, R.; Louys, J. (2017). "Seasonal migration of marsupial megafauna in Pleistocene Sahul (Australia–New Guinea)". Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 284 (1863): 20170785. doi:10.1098/rspb.2017.0785. PMC 5627191. PMID 28954903.
  15. Richard Wright (1986). New light on the extinction of the Australian magafauna.
  16. James Cohen (1995). Aboriginal environmental impacts.
  17. J.Allen; J.Golson; R.Jones (1977). Sunda and Sahul: Prehistoric Studies in Southeast Asia, Melanesia and Australia. London: Academic Press. pp. 205–246.
  18. "Future Eaters Ep.1 - Taming the fire -The thesis and responses from critics". Abc.net.au. Retrieved 2014-07-25.
  19. Flannery, Tim (16 October 2002). The future eaters: an ecological history of the Australasian lands and people. New York: Grove/Atlantic, Inc. ISBN 978-0-8021-3943-6. OCLC 32745413.
  20. Jones, C. (23 January 2010). "Early humans wiped out Australia's giants". Nature News Web Site. Nature Publishing Group. doi:10.1038/news.2010.30. Retrieved 7 November 2011.
  21. Grün, R.; Eggins, S.; Aubert, M.; Spooner, N.; Pike, A. W. G.; Müller, W. (1 March 2010). "ESR and U-series analyses of faunal material from Cuddie Springs, NSW, Australia: implications for the timing of the extinction of the Australian megafauna". Quaternary Science Reviews. 29 (5–6): 596–610. Bibcode:2010QSRv...29..596G. doi:10.1016/j.quascirev.2009.11.004.
  22. Biello, D. (2012-03-22). "Big Kill, Not Big Chill, Finished Off Giant Kangaroos". Scientific American news. Retrieved 2012-03-25.
  23. McGlone, M. (2012-03-23). "The Hunters Did It". Science. 335 (6075): 1452–1453. Bibcode:2012Sci...335.1452M. doi:10.1126/science.1220176. PMID 22442471.
  24. Rule, S.; Brook, B. W.; Haberle, S. G.; Turney, C. S. M.; Kershaw, A. P. (2012-03-23). "The Aftermath of Megafaunal Extinction: Ecosystem Transformation in Pleistocene Australia". Science. 335 (6075): 1483–1486. Bibcode:2012Sci...335.1483R. doi:10.1126/science.1214261. PMID 22442481.
  25. Johnson, C. N.; Alroy, J.; Beeton, N. J.; Bird, M. I.; Brook, B. W.; Cooper, A.; Gillespie, R.; Herrando-Pérez, S.; Jacobs, Z.; Miller, G. H.; Prideaux, G. J.; Roberts, R. G.; Rodríguez-Rey, M.; Saltré, F.; Turney, C. S. M.; Bradshaw, C. J. A. (10 February 2016). "What caused extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna of Sahul?". Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 283 (1824): 20152399. doi:10.1098/rspb.2015.2399. PMC 4760161. PMID 26865301.
  26. Diamond, Jared (13 August 2008). "Palaeontology: The last giant kangaroo". Nature. 454 (7206): 835–836. Bibcode:2008Natur.454..835D. doi:10.1038/454835a. PMID 18704074.
  27. Turney, C. S. M.; Flannery, T. F.; Roberts, R. G.; Reid, C.; Fifield, L. K.; Higham, T. F. G.; Jacobs, Z.; Kemp, N.; Colhoun, E. A.; Kalin, R. M.; Ogle, N. (21 August 2008). "Late-surviving megafauna in Tasmania, Australia, implicate human involvement in their extinction". PNAS. NAS. 105 (34): 12150–12153. Bibcode:2008PNAS..10512150T. doi:10.1073/pnas.0801360105. PMC 2527880. PMID 18719103. Retrieved 8 May 2011.
  28. Roberts, R.; Jacobs, Z. (October 2008). "The Lost Giants of Tasmania" (PDF). Australasian Science. 29 (9): 14–17. Archived from the original (PDF) on 27 September 2011. Retrieved 26 August 2011.

Further reading

  • Danielle Clode (2009) Prehistoric giants: the megafauna of Australia. Museum Victoria.
  • Barry Cox, Colin Harrison, R.J.G. Savage, and Brian Gardiner. (1999): The Simon & Schuster Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Creatures: A Visual Who's Who of Prehistoric Life. Simon & Schuster.
  • Jayne Parsons. (2001): Dinosaur Encyclopedia. Dorling Kindersley.
  • David Norman. (2001): The Big Book Of Dinosaurs. Welcome Books.
  • Gilbert Price. (2005): Article in Memoirs of the Queensland Museum. Queensland Museum.
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