Mark Grossman: Australia’s Megafauna — The Forgotten Giants of Prehistory


8 August 2013

Everyone remembers the dinosaurs, but what happened after the dinosaurs went extinct?  They left a vacuum filled by giant and often forgotten animals: the megafauna.  The term megafauna, “big animals,” covers several groups of giant creatures.  However, naturalist Richard Owen honored only the oldest members of the group with the special name, “dinosaur.”  The remaining giants, those that roamed the earth between 10,000 and 40,000 years ago, are known by the (too general) term “megafauna.”

Today, Australia boasts a unique collection of animals.  Not only do these creatures look exceptional, they are also exceptional in terms scientific classification.  The duck billed platypus is classified as a mammal, but has a much lower body temperature than other mammals and lays eggs–earning it a special mention whenever biologists formulate a list of standard mammalian characteristics.  Indeed, the platypus is so “different” that the first reports of its discovery were denounced as “a fraud.”

Australia, also, has a large variety of marsupials, a group of animals that carry their immature young in a pouch for a period of time after birth.  Not surprisingly, the prehistoric Australian megafauna also include a wide variety of now-extinct marsupials.

Throughout millennia, arid periods threatened the survival of Australia’s megafauna, but one particular arid period, their last, coincided with the arrival of homo sapiens.  There is intense debate about whether climate or human interference caused the extinction.  Perhaps, it was some of both.

However, extinction is not necessarily the same as “dying out.”  The megafauna are no more, but many of their direct descendants roam Australia today–miniature versions of their ancient ancestors.  The modern kangaroo and wombat are direct descendants, “distant children,” of monstrously huge versions of themselves.  And huge they were.  New and more precise methods of calculating the size of the ancient mammals has revealed that they may have been much larger than previously thought.

Prehistoric Australia’s strange collection of giant wildlife included Diprotodon, the Giant Wombat. Unlike its relatively petite, modern descendant, this wombat weighed as much as two tons.  The remains of these giant creatures have been found all over Australia.

The Giant Short-Faced Kangaroo, Procoptodon, the largest known kangaroo that ever existed, stood about 7 feet tall and weighed 500 pounds.  Its feet looked a bit like horse hooves having only one large toe on each foot.  Each of its front paws had two long fingers with large claws. A full-size, lifelike replica is on permanent display, along with other ancient Australian animals, at the Australian Museum.

The Marsupial Lion, Thylacoleo, was not quite as big as the modern lion, but had just as strong a bite.  In fact, this creature had the strongest bite for its size of any known mammal species, living or dead.  Its long muscular tail was similar to that of a kangaroo, and it may even have been able to climb trees.  The Marsupial Lion is thought to have hunted large animals such as the giant wombat and giant kangaroo.

The Demon Duck of Doom, Bullockornis, is older than the typical megafauna species.  Although living closer to the age of dinosaurs, it was just too unusual to omit.  This flightless bird was about 8 feet tall and weighed about 500 pounds.  Thought to be carnivorous, Bullockornis had a huge beak, suitable for “shearing,” which probably explains its threatening name.

The giant turtle, Meiolania, had disturbingly devilish horns making its head almost 2 feet wide (measured from the tip of each horn).  The horns prevented the giant turtle from withdrawing its head into its shell–but who was going to mess with it anyway.  Pulling its tail was not a good idea either.  The tail was ringed with armor-like skin and was tipped with spikes.  At about 8 feet long, most animals probably just got out of this turtle’s way as it crawled across the prehistoric landscape.

One cannot research these giant creatures without stumbling across the fact that all continents had megafauna–not just Australia.  North America had one of the most famous species and one of the last to go extinct, the Wooly Mammoth.  This enormous version of the modern elephant roamed the northern extremes of North America about 12,000 years ago.

At one-ton (2,000 pounds), Andrewsarchus was the largest carnivorous land mammal that ever lived.  Bearing a resemblance to the hyena, on which it preyed, it might be the biggest dog-like creature that ever lived.  It was certainly larger than the than biggest prehistoric dog, Canis Diris, the Dire Wolf.  At 150 pounds, the Dire Wolf was a featherweight compared to Audrewsarchus, but more than a heavyweight compared to its descendant, the modern wolf.  Remains of the Dire Wolf have been found alongside those of the Saber Toothed Tiger in the La Brea Tar Pits of Los Angeles.

Perhaps the species that suffered the most indignity at human hands was a giant version of the modern armadillo, Glyptodon.  It lumbered through the forests of South America and was about the size of a modern VW bug.  Slow and meaty, human hunters had both the patience and ingenuity to hunt and kill this strange creature.  Not only was its meat used for food, its shell was used as a kind of prefabricated living shelter.  In terms of size, its shell provided something like the Torrid Zone equivalent of an igloo.  As human food and housing demands increased, the number of giant armadillos decreased until the prehistoric housing bubble burst when this natural producer of “prefabricated housing solutions” went extinct.

Image Links:

The Giant Wombat, Diprotodon

Giant Kangaroo, Procoptodon

The Marsupial Lion, Thylacoleo

Demon Duck of Doom, Bullockorn

The Giant Turtle, Meiolania

Wooly Mammoth


Dire Wolf

The Giant Armadillo, Glyptodon

Selected Links & References:

Austrailian MegaFauna & Museums

Australian mega fauna

Australian Museum

Museum Victoria

Queensland Museum

10 Giant Mammals that Succeeded the Dinosaurs

Australia’s extinct animals–Australian Museum

Australia’s Megafauna

Australian Megafauna A-Z

Australia’s Lost Giants – National Geographic Magazine

Australia’s Lost Giants – Photo Gallery – National Geographic Magazine

Mega Fauna of the World & Museums

Prehistoric Megafauna – The Giant Mammals and Megafauna of the Cenozoic Era

Giant mammals cause prehistory rethink › News in Science (ABC Science)

Ice Age Animals

Mammalian megafauna | UCL UCL Museums & Collections Ice Age – Megafauna

Megafauna! : DenverMuseum of Nature & Science

Prehistoric Megafauna exhibits in museums on the east coast?(US)

10 Giant Mammals that Succeeded the Dinosaurs

List of megafauna discovered in modern times – Wikipedia

History and Continuing Study

What does megafauna mean?: Museum Victoria

RichardOwen  NaturalHistoryMuseum

Studying megafauna fossils

Studying Megafauna Fossils: MelbourneMuseum

OZ fossils – The Age of the Megafauna – The Fauna – Fauna found at the Naracoorte Fossil site

Studying Megafauna Fossils: MelbourneMuseum

Art & Speculation

Super Scary Megafauna

Strange Ice Age Mammals

14 extinct animals that could be resurrected: Fit to be cloned

Mark Grossmann of Hazelwood, Missouri & Belleville, Illinois

About the Author

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Mark Grossman: The Giant Alligator Snapping Turtle – the Perfect Pet!?

17 April 2014

It was just typical day browsing on the Internet. A story caught my eye. It was about a Louisiana man named Travis Lewis. When he was outside his home, something caught his eye. At first, he thought he saw an unusually large log in a nearby canal.

But with a closer look, he realized that, what he thought was a log, was actually a giant turtle. A giant turtle. It had a head the size of a football and was about 4 feet long. It was, in fact, an alligator snapping turtle. The turtle was wedged in a culvert – stuck.

What does an alligator snapping turtle look like? Well, let’s just say that a dinosaur could mistake one of these turtles for its cousin. Really, just look at the pictures below.

I hope he’s just yawning.

The alligator snapping turtle is the largest freshwater turtle in North America.  It has a spiked shell and a beak-like jaw. These turtles can reach 250 pounds and live for almost 200 years. They enjoy hanging out at the bottom of lakes, rivers, and canals.  This turtle has no natural predators other than human beings. They, themselves, eat snakes, clams, and other turtles.

I hope he’s just yawning, again!

This snapping turtle can close its jaw with incredible speed. But, as one article explained, reassuringly, many other snapping turtles have a more powerful bite than the alligator snapping turtle. In fact, relative to its size, this turtle’s bite is no more powerful than that of a human being. The source went on to add, cheerfully, that these turtles can bite through bone.

If I’d seen this turtle in a nearby canal, my next steps would have been to go inside my home, call animal control, and lock my door and windows.   But in Louisiana, a giant, prehistoric-looking turtle with a bone-crushing bite inspires a different reaction.

Travis Lewis immediately called for his friend, Martin LeBlanc. When LeBlanc got there, he saw the giant turtle with the football-sized head. Was he worried?  No, of course not.  His first thought?  Dinner.

Yeah, I bet that critter could have fed the whole neighborhood. (Or fed on the whole neighborhood.)

Again, the turtle was stuck – wedged tight in a culvert. The two called a third friend.   Did the newcomer call animal control?   No way.   “Friend # 3,” Louisiana’s answer to Steve Irwin, jumped right into the culvert. The first two followed. Within 45 minutes, the four-foot long snapping turtle was free. Travis casually commented that the group did take care to “stay clear . . . of the business end” of the turtle because “[o]nce it latches on to you, it’s going to take whatever it bites with it.”

See:  Enormous alligator snapping turtle rescued from drainage culvert

A little puzzled by the men’s attitude toward this giant bone-crushing snapping turtle, I did an internet search on the “alligator snapping turtle.”  I was in for a surprise.

In the 1930’s, a man named Dale Carnegie wrote a book called, “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” If Mr. Carnegie were alive today, he would be studying the giant alligator snapping turtle. Why?  Because whatever this turtle is doing, it sure seems to be a hit with everybody.

The first thing I turned up was a set of instructions on how to care for your giant alligator snapping turtle. A little more surprised, I went on searching.  What did I find?  More care and feeding instructions.

Care Sheet – Alligator Snapping Turtle

So, you know what’s happening at your local Humane Society? Rover is waiting in a cage, with a dozen other dogs, hoping to find a home. But the Society has waiting list a mile long for giant alligator snapping turtles.  Sure. That makes sense. We’re talking about a giant snapping turtle with a bone-crushing bite who seems to always be photographed with its beak-like mouth wide open waiting to take your hand or foot off.  Gee, who wouldn’t want to own one?

I go on hoping!

I used to read stories about the loyalty and heroism of dogs, but I didn’t find anything like that. Instead I found the “heart-warming” story of “Crunch” an alligator snapping turtle. With that bite, you’ve got to wonder how an animal like this got the nickname  “Crunch.”  . . .   Anyway, Crunch was rescued from certain death in a commercial fishery and, now, not only survives, but enjoys a comfortable retirement at the Blackwater Turtle Refuge.

See:  “Crunch” — Historyvideo: 150 plus year old Alligator Snapping Turtle (“Crunch’)

Speaking of survival, the rescuers of our Louisiana turtle are planning to release it in a spot where it can roam free.   We are assured that the turtle has nothing to fear from rescuer Martin LeBlanc’s turtle soup pot. And you’d need a lot more than pot to cook this four-footer. He’d barely fit in a bathtub.

Enormous alligator snapping turtle rescued from drainage culvert

Mark Grossmann of Hazelwood, Missouri

See also:

Alligator Snapping Turtle – National Zoo FONZ

Alligator Snapping Turtles, Alligator Snapping Turtle Pictures, Alligator Snapping Turtle Facts – National Geographic