Wakaleo schouteni sounds like one of those animals that should be a myth. In fact, it resembles the legendary Australian drop bear more than just a little. This 50-pound marsupial would have looked something like  a lanky version of a koala with meat-cleaver teeth, just as adept at climbing trees but preferring a diet of flesh to eucalyptus. Fantastic, perhaps, but the bones don't lie.

Paleontologist Anna Gillespie and colleagues named this new species of "marsupial lion" from a nearly-complete skull and additional postcranial bones found in the 26-19 million year old deposits of Australia's Riversleigh World Heritage Area. It's not the only beast of its kind ever known. Its larger, later relative Thylacoleo carnifex is the family's standard bearer. But the announcement of Wakaleo schouteni is a wonderful reminder that Australia's ancient carnivores evolved in their own unique and unexpected ways, carving out their own way to be leopard-like hunters. 

And this isn't just about naming something new. Every new fossil species added to the list of known prehistoric life helps throw others into context. In this case, Gillespie and coauthors explain, the analysis of Wakaleo schouteni revealed that another marsupial lion named half a century ago - Priscileo pitikantensis - should actually be a species of Wakaleo, too. This other Wakaleo species is just about as old, going back to the Late Oligocene, and points to an even earlier origin for the group. This gives paleontologists all the more reason to dig in deeper, scratching away at the evolutionary origin of these marsupial copycats.

The skull of Wakaleo schouteni. Credit: Gillespie et al 2017

Name: Wakaleo schouteni

Meaning: The established genus Wakaleo means "small lion", and schouteni honors paleoartist Peter Schouten.

Age: Oligocene-Miocene, between 26 and 19 million years ago.

Where in the world?: Riversleigh World Heritage Area, Australia. 

What sort of organism?: A marsupial mammal belonging to a group called the Thylacoleonidae.

How much of the organism’s is known?: A nearly-complete skull and additional postcranial bones.


Gillespie, A., Archer, M., Hand, S. 2017. A new Oligo-Miocene marsupial lion from Australia and revision of the family Thylacoleonidae. Journal of Systematic Palaeontology. doi: 10.1080/14772019.2017.1391885

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