By Will Dunham
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A fox-sized marsupial predator that roamed Australia from about 23 to 12 million years ago had plenty of bite to go along with its bark. But while it was certainly fierce, it was no Tasmanian devil, Australia's famously ferocious bantamweight brute.
Those were the findings reported on Wednesday by scientists who essentially brought the extinct mammal back to life in the virtual world to study its bite force and other qualities in comparison to other marsupial meat-eaters.
They used 3D computer software to reconstruct its skull - patterned after a nicely preserved fossil - and performed biomechanical analysis to see whether it was a champion chomper.
The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, assessed the biting and killing capabilities of a marsupial called Nimbacinus dicksoni that lived in northern Australia during the Miocene Epoch, a span of time populated by a wondrous array of mammals and other animals.
Nimbacinus dicksoni proved to be quite formidable and was probably able to hunt prey bigger than itself, the study found.
"It has the teeth of a true marsupial carnivore, with well-developed vertical slicing blades for cutting through meat and sinew," said Stephen Wroe, a zoologist and paleontologist at Australia's University of New England and one of the researchers.
"It likely preyed upon small to medium-sized birds, frogs, lizards and snakes, as well as a wide range of marsupials."
But it fell short of the Tasmanian devil's chomping power.
"It was certainly less powerful and less able to handle heavy loadings or forces than the Tasmanian devil. While it could probably have processed smaller bones, it did not have the capacity to crush and crack bone that the devil has - but then few creatures do," Wroe said.
While placental mammals - rodents, bats, cats, dogs, cows, whales and many more, including people - dominated most of the world, Australia was dominated by marsupial mammals, which give birth to premature babies and then nourish them inside a pouch.
Australia's marsupials include kangaroos, wallabies, wombats and koalas, but also some fierce meat-eaters like the Tasmanian devil and spotted-tailed quoll. The island continent once was home to many more carnivorous marsupials, including the wolf-sized Tasmanian tiger that went extinct in 1936.
Nimbacinus dicksoni, also called Dickson's thylacine, was about the size of a small fox or very big domestic cat, weighed about 11 pounds (5 kg) and had a face like a cross between a cat and an opossum. It was a smaller relative of the Tasmanian tiger, which of course was not a cat despite its name.
The researchers compared the bite force of the two species to each other and to existing marsupial predators including the Tasmanian devil, spotted-tailed quoll and northern quoll.
The fossilized skull of Nimbacinus dicksoni was very well preserved but some parts still were damaged or missing. The researchers digitally replaced those parts using 3D computer software, then made a 3D model to predict mechanical performance and how the skull might do when biting and killing prey.
Nimbacinus dicksoni most closely matched the biting power of the spotted-tailed quoll, which has a pink nose and brown fur covered in white spots, even though the two species are not closely related, the researchers found.
"Quolls are cute, but don't be deceived. They are fearless and ferocious predators," Wroe said.
The simulations suggested the Tasmanian tiger was poorly suited to capture and kill large prey despite being the largest of the marsupial predators to live into recent times.
Compared to the Tasmanian tiger, Nimbacinus dicksoni possessed a shorter, wider snout and its distinctive cheek teeth, used for cutting and shearing meat, were not as specialized, according to zoologist Marie Attard of the University of New England, another of the researchers.
The thylacinids, the group that includes Nimbacinus dicksoni and the Tasmanian tiger, "are an excellent example of an ecologically diverse family that has now become extinct, and provides an important reminder of how easily large carnivores such as the Tasmanian tiger can be wiped out if we don't fight to save them," Attard said.
(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Paul Simao)