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Your Weekly Attenborough: Microleo attenboroughi

Adorable, extinct

By Nathaniel Scharping
Mar 24, 2018 1:08 AMFeb 11, 2020 9:10 PM
(Credit: Peter Schouten)


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Tiny. Marsupial. Lion. Those three words should be enough to stop you in your tracks, and if SEO worked like it ought to, this post would be flooded with traffic. I had no idea there was such a thing as a miniature lion with a baby pouch, and now that I do, I'm feeling all Veruca Salt. Come on, it's adorable.

It's a hopeless dream, of course — Microleo attenboroughi has been extinct for about 19 million years. The species was one of eight known prehistoric marsupial lions, which ranged from the diminutive to the fairly terrifying in size — one species was probably about as big as a leopard — whereas Attenborough's marsupial lion was small enough to fit snugly inside a kangaroo's pouch.

It made up for its stature with some wicked dentition, though — a close relative was described as having teeth like "a pair of bolt-cutting blades". Small but ferocious then. The Miocene-era predators probably spent most of their time in the trees of the Australian forests they inhabited, the researchers who discovered the species think, based on comparisons of their body size and predation habits to those of modern-day mammals.

They published their findings in the journal Palaeontologia Electronica (also probably an album from a Daft Punk rip-off somewhere).

We know of M. attenboroughi from a just a few bits of fossil from Queensland, but it's enough to establish the pouch-bearing lions as a new species, one of three that lived in the area at various points in time.

They got bigger as time went on, and the researchers suggest that some species of the snuggle-ready mammals may have been the top arboreal predators of the time. In other words, they ruled the treetops, and with good reason. One species, Thylacoleo carnifex, was thought to deliver a crushingly powerful bite — about equivalent to an African lion.

Our micro-lion may have been small, but its bite was almost certainly worse than its bark. Come to think of it, it's probably lucky humanity wasn't around during the time of the marsupial lions. Given that M. attenboroughi scores about a perfect 10 on the cuteness scale, we may not have been able to stay away — from their jaws, ultimately.

Today, we've got a far smaller collection of pouched mammals to choose from, though those that remain are plenty interesting, if just for their names alone. Take the potoroo, for example, or the quokka. Numbats, bilbies and bettongs are also real creatures that exist.

Australia certainly doesn't disappoint when it comes to naming species. For more on David Attenborough's tiny marsupial, I suggest reading fellow Discover editor Gemma Tarlach's take over at her "Dead Things" blog. I'd be lion if I said it wasn't better.

Bonus Attenborough Fact of the Week:  Though he may qualify, David Attenborough actually hates being called a "national treasure" in Britain. Maybe it's something to do with Nic Cage.

Last week's Attenborough: Blakea attenboroughii

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