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Scientists rethink ancient wombat in new study

AAP, June 30, 2020 7:00PM Kids News

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An artist's reconstruction of a giant wombat-like marsupial Mukupirna nambensis. Picture: AAP/Peter Schouten media_cameraAn artist's reconstruction of a giant wombat-like marsupial Mukupirna nambensis. Picture: AAP/Peter Schouten


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A giant wombat the size of a black bear that roamed Australia 25 million years ago has been classified as a new category of marsupial after almost 50 years of study.

The bones of Mukupirna nambensis were unearthed in the clay floor of Lake Pinpa, a dry salt lake east of South Australia’s Flinders Ranges in 1973.

An international team of scientists, including from the University of NSW and Griffith University, have been studying the remains.

A partial skull and most of the skeleton belonged to an animal more than four times the size of modern living wombats and may have weighed about 150kg.

“An analysis* of Mukupirna’s evolutionary* relationships reveals that although it was most closely related to wombats, it is so different from all known wombats as well as other marsupials, that it had to be placed in its own unique family, the Mukupirnidae,” the researchers said.

media_cameraHope the wombat and Elsa the koala. Mukupirna was nothing like modern wombats. Picture: The Australian Reptile Park

UNSW Professor Mike Archer is a co-author of a paper on the creature published in the journal Scientific Reports.

He is part of the original international team of palaeontologists* that discovered the remains in the clay floor of Lake Pinpa.

The discovery of Mukupirna was in part due to good luck, after an unusual change in local conditions washed or blew away sand and exposed the 25 million-year-old fossil deposit on the floor of the lake.

“Because of rare environmental conditions prior* to our arrival that year, the fossil-rich clay deposits were fully exposed to view,” Prof Archer said.

“On the surface, and just below we found skulls, teeth, bones and in some cases, articulated skeletons of many new and exotic kinds of mammals. As well, there were the teeth of extinct lungfish, skeletons of bony fish and the bones of many kinds of water birds including flamingoes and ducks.

“These animals ranged from tiny carnivorous* marsupials about the size of a mouse right up to Mukupirna which was similar in size to a living black bear. It was an amazingly rich fossil deposit full of extinct animals that we’d never seen before.”

Supplied Editorial media_cameraThe expedition to Lake Pinpa, SA, in 1973. Picture: Mike Archer

Prof Archer said when Mukupirna’s skeleton was first discovered nobody had any idea what kind of animal it was because it was encased in clay.

The team discovered it by “probing the dry flat surface of the Lake with a thin metal pole, like acupuncturing* the skin of Mother Earth” to reveal “the articulated* skeleton of a most mysterious new creature”.

The researchers’ recent study of the partial skull and skeleton reveals that despite its bear-like size, Mukupirna was probably a gentle giant that ate only plants and was unlikely to have been a burrower like modern wombats.

Featherdale Reopens media_cameraA hairy-nosed wombat at Featherdale Wildlife Park, NSW. Modern wombats like this one dig burrows, but Mukupirna is unlikely to have been a burrower. Picture: John Appleyard


  • analysis: study
  • evolutionary: to do with evolution over millions of years
  • palaeontologists: scientists who study fossils
  • prior: before
  • carnivorous: eats meat
  • acupuncturing: treatment for injury and illness that uses fine needles
  • articulated: can move at joints


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  1. Why is this creature in the news now when it was found so long ago?
  2. Why were the fossils able to be discovered in 1973?
  3. How long has Mike Archer been involved in studying this wombat?
  4. Was this the only creature they found at Lake Pinpa?
  5. What is one behaviour like modern wombats and one behaviour that is different.


1. Wombat Revelation
Sketch an outline of this giant wombat species described in the Kids News article.

Around your sketch or inside its body, write some facts about this interesting creature. Give it a personality by giving it a name and some personality traits of where it lived and what it liked doing and how it survived.

Compare your wombat information and sketch with some classmates around you.

Time: allow 20 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Science

2. Extension
Give some possible reasons why modern wombats are only a quarter of the size as this giant marsupial that lived 25 million years ago.

Why do you think they believe this giant, bear-like animal wasn’t a burrower and was a gentle giant?

Time: allow 10 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Science, Critical and creative thinking

Up-Level It
Scan through the article and see if you can locate three words that you consider to be basic, or low level. Words we use all the time and they can be replaced by more sophisticated words, words like good and said are examples of overused words.

Once you have found them, see if you can up-level them. Think of synonyms you could use instead of these basic words, but make sure they still fit into the context of the article.

Re-read the article with your new words.

Did it make it better?

Why/Why not?

HAVE YOUR SAY: What is your favourite ancient animal?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be published until approved by editors.

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