Ancient tree-climbing kangaroo discovered

Researchers have discovered an extinct tree-climbing kangaroo species, which boasted powerful hind- and forelimbs, grasping hands and strongly curved claws.

The new discovery reveals more about the divergent evolutionary pathways of ancient kangaroos, as well as potentially rewriting the story of the changing climate and ecology of ancient Western Australia.

The new study, led by Dr Natalie Warburton of Murdoch University and Professor Gavin Prideaux of Flinders University, examined skeletons originally discovered in 2002 and 2003 by Western Australian cavers exploring the Nullarbor Plain Thylacoleo caves and Mammoth Cave.

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Hands and feet of the kangaroo. Credit: N. Warburton, Murdoch University

“Despite purportedly being an expert in fossil kangaroos, it took me most of that time to work out that these two skeletons belonged to a species first described decades earlier from jaw fragments from a cave in southwestern Australia,” says Prideaux.

“These fossils have unusually long fingers and toes with long, curved-claws, in comparison to other kangaroos and wallabies, for gripping; powerful arm muscles to raise and hold themselves up in trees, and a longer, more mobile neck than other kangaroos that would be useful for reaching out the head in different directions for browsing on leaves,” explains Warburton.

“This is really interesting, not just from the point of view of unexpected tree-climbing behaviour in a large wallaby, but also as these specimens come from an area that is now bare of trees, and so tells us that the habitat and environment in the area were really different to what they are now, and perhaps different to what we might have previously interpreted for that time.”

The researchers have published a description of the tree-climbing kangaroo in Royal Society Open Science.

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