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Planet Earth

Whollydooleya, Batman! The Tasmanian Devil's Bigger, Badder Cousin

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Tasmanian devils like this li'l fella, a resident named Neville at the Trowunna Wildlife Park in Tasmania, are the nearest living relatives of newly described carnivorous marsupial Whollydooleya tomnpatrichorum. Credit: G. Tarlach. Thank you, Australia. One of your many contributions to the world is an amazing collection of unique animals past and present that, let's be honest, are just fun. Adorable echidnas, sweet little pademelons (you cannot be angry when you say their name...try it), koalas, wombats and, of course, the Tasmanian devils, what I like to think of as lapdogs of Mordor. The devils, often misunderstood and now tragically imperiled by disease, are cousins to the latest fossil find out of the island nation's northeast: Whollydooleya tomnpatrichorum. The carnivorous marsupial is estimated to have been at least twice the size of today's devils. It's just the latest animal to emerge from Australia's fossiliferous northeast, which includes the famous Riversleigh, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Whollydooleya, Wholly for short, is considered a hypercarnivore. While that sounds either like some kind of super predator, or maybe a carnivore with a lot of energy, it just means it ate mostly meat. Not exciting enough for you? Okay, well consider that the description of the animal, published in Memoirs of Museum Victoria, paints a picture of a carnivore weighing around 50 pounds (20-25kg), considerably bigger than a Tassie devil (22 pounds, or 10kg), with teeth capable of shearing through all things munchable and crunchable.

Supertooth!

I know what you're thinking, where are the photos of this wonderful new Beast of Yore? Wholly is, alas, so far known from a single molar. The tooth has enough highly specialized features, however, to tell researchers a great deal about its size and diet. They're learning even more by looking at what else was found at the site: sand grains and other environmental clues deposited around the same time as the Wholly tooth, more than 5 million years ago. That's during a period when the entire region was drying out and the toothy critter was dealing with a changing environment. Tassie devils, once present throughout Australia but now found only on the island off the nation's southeast coast, are not very closely related to Whollydooleya — but they're its nearest living relatives. That gives me an excuse to post a shot of a few friends from Devils@Cradle, one of several wonderful sanctuaries in Tasmania that are working to save this adorable, ecologically important species from the horrific Devil Facial Tumor Disease. Okay, that's a little off-topic, but I love these guys.

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Hypercarnivore Dinnertime: Tasmanian devils enjoy some meaty fare at the Devils@Cradle sanctuary in Tasmania. Credit: G. Tarlach

More to Come

Wholly, by the way, gets its species name from longtime Riversleigh researchers Tom and Pat Rich. Its genus name is a shout-out to the spot where it was found, Wholly Dooley Hill. The fossil is the first specimen from the site to be formally described, but I'm betting it's not the last. Researchers believe Wholly Dooley has a lot more to offer up...hopefully more of Whollydooleya will be among the finds.

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