Photo: A reconstruction by palaeoartist Peter Schouten shows Microleo attenboroughi prowling along the branches of rainforest trees in search of prey. Credit: Peter Schouten A new marsupial lion fossil from Down Under is now the recognized runt in its family and carries the name of a famous naturalist.
Researchers from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) documented the new genus and species, Microleo attenboroughi, based upon a partial skull and teeth found in the fossil-fertile Riversleigh World Heritage area in northwest Queensland, Australia. The specimen dates to about 19 million years ago, the scientists say, during the early Miocene, when northern Australia was wet, mild and rainforest-like.
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Despite the "lion" in its name, the creature only weighed about 21 ounces (600 grams) and was more like a possum than a king of the jungle.
In fact, say the UNSW researchers, who have published their findings in the journal Palaeontologia Electronica, the tiny animal was the smallest in the marsupial lion family (Thylacoleonidae), whose top cat was the small-lion-sized Thylacoleo carnifex.
"Microleo attenboroughi would have been more like the cute, but still feisty, kitten of the family," said the study's lead author Anna Gillespie in a statement.
The name Microleo attenboroughi is a nod to its small "micro" size and also a tip of the hat to famed British naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough, who has championed the Riversleigh World Heritage Area.