Extinct Marsupial Feasted on Escargot

Fossils of a carnivorous creature that lived 15 million years ago show it used a hammer-like premolar to crack open the strongest shells.

<p>PETER SCHOUTEN<span></span></p>

About 15 million years ago, in what is now northwestern Queensland, Australia, a newly found marsupial named Malleodectes mirabilis had a fondness for snails. It took them whole, shell and all, thanks to an odd piece of mouth hardware – a premolar that could crack open shells with ease.

That was among the findings out of the University of New South Wales (UNSW), where researchers announced the results of a study of a skull fossil from a juvenile of the species.

"Malleodectes mirabilis was a bizarre mammal, as strange in its own way as a koala or kangaroo," lead author Mike Archer said in a statement.

Archer called the creature "unique among mammals" in its taste for escargot and noted that the premolar could "crack and then crush the strongest snail shells in the forest."

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The skull fragment came from a cave deposit in Riversleigh that has been a veritable treasure trove for paleontologists. The cave – now just a limestone floor, after millions of years of erosion – was the site of many an animal's demise after falling into the abyss.

"The juvenile malleodectid could have been clinging to the back of its mother while she was hunting for snails in the rocks around the cave's entrance, and may have fallen in and then been unable to climb back out," surmised study co-author Suzanne Hand.

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The animal was young enough to still have been teething, its baby teeth intact, its adult teeth -- including the huge premolar -- not far from bursting onto the scene.

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It's that bevy of teeth samples that has allowed researchers to work out the animal's relationship to other Aussie marsupials.

And which animals could M. mirabilis call relatives?

"Although it is very different from the others," Archer said, "it appears to have been related to the dasyures – marsupial carnivores such as Tasmanian devils and the extinct Tasmanian tigers that are unique to Australia and New Guinea."

Detailed findings on the new marsupial have been published in the journal Scientific Reports.