Think Australia is scary now? I mean, I understand your trepidation – salt water crocodiles, sharks, jellyfish, giant spiders – who wouldn’t think twice about going for a stroll in the Outback? But what you see today is nothing compared to what aboriginal settlers had to deal with 50,000 years ago. There were giant kangaroos, hippo-sized wombats, twenty-foot long monitor lizards, and echidnas the size of sheep. Sheep.
Whoever got to this island, looked around, and said “Yeah, this’ll do,” must have had ice water in her veins. I can imagine her stepping out of a canoe, a fierce, conquering look in her eyes as she surveyed her new home. I can imagine her walking through the forest paths. I can imagine her hunting for food. I can imagine her being flying-tackled and eaten by a 250 pound marsupial lion.
Because this article isn’t about her. She may have been hardcore, but Australia was already home to its resident heavyweight badass champion – a terrifying predator called Thylacoleo carnifex.
So why was Thylacoleo so terrifying?
1. It Was Built like a Lion – Thylacoleo weighed 250 pounds, was three feet tall, six feet long, and did not mess around. Its front legs were massive and well-developed meaning it could easily batter prey into submission. It had semi-opposable thumbs armed with velociraptor-like claws. Also, while it’s not related to cats, Thylacoleo convergently evolved retractable claws, turning its already-formidable paws into grappling hooks. Evidence even shows that it could balance on its back legs to better tackle and subdue its prey. Thylacoleo was built like a killer.
2. It’s Teeth were Custom-Built Bolt-Cutters – Check out those chompers.
Most predators rely on their canine teeth to attack prey, but Thylacoleo did things differently. Instead of fangs, it had sharp, buckteeth for incisors and two huge scissor-like pairs of premolars in the back. These premolars (called carnassials) are found in nearly all carnivores and are usually used to slice up meat after it was already dead, but Thylacoleo went all out, changing these teeth into formidable weapons. And these teeth were backed up by gigantic jaw muscles. In fact, Thylacoleo may have packed the strongest bite for its size of any mammal to ever exist.
All this boils down to a terrifying reality. When a lion catches its prey, they have to use their canines to severe or crush the windpipe and spinal cords, an efficient, but slow process. Thylacoleo didn’t have time to wait. Instead, they used their huge carnassials to simply slice the entire neck open – like bolt cutters going through tin foil. The prey would be dead within a minute.
3. It’s Closest Living Relatives are Koalas and Wombats – So what did this amazing super-predator evolve from? A herbivore. Our best consensus is that Thylacoleo evolved from something resembling a wombat. Which means that at some point in the past, a dinky little herbivore looked around at all the nice, easy grass and leaves, then over at some giant kangaroos and decided that it’s life wasn’t exciting enough.
4. It Only Died Because its Prey Became Too Wimpy – Sadly (happily? thankfully?) Thylacoleo isn’t around today, leaving Australia to its decidedly less-terrifying relatives. Ironically enough, in the end its sheer strength may have been it’s weakness. Thylacoleo evolved to take on the largest game it could, but as the rest of the megafauna disappeared so too did Thylacoleo’s food source. Not equipped to settle for the paltry prey left behind, Thylacoleo starved to death. The world had simply become too small.