This hippopotamus-sized, herbivorous wombat-like marsupial (3 metres long and 2 metres tall at the shoulder) was the largest of its kind that ever lived and existed from 1,600,000-appoximately 20,000 years ago, during the Quaternary period. Due in large part to its bulk, it rarely strayed far from water sources and browsed on shrubs and grasses as it ambled through open forests, woodlands and grasslands (solitarily or herds no larger than family groups, and then only because the young were dependent on the mother for a long time, as skeletal remains have indicated). Diprotodon tended to remain in central Australia, although remains have been found in coastal areas (Millicent, Flinders Chase, Adelaide and Normanville). Diprotodon remains have not been found anywhere in Tasmania (although the creatures did reach King’s Island), south-western Western Australia, the Northern Territory or New Guinea.
Evidence of this creature’s existence is extensive, with a number of Diprotodon bones having been perfectly preserved at many sites (especially Lake Callabonna in South Australia, where a sizeable group became mired). Diprotodon’s skeletal structure was particularly interesting, as it had relatively small, fragile feet (which were flat, forcing it to walk mainly on the outside of the foot) despite its otherwise impressive stature, which probably meant that it was restricted to the soft ground near waterways. This hypothesis lends credence firstly to the dominant extinction theory, which points to cold, arid conditions around the time of the extinction of the megafauna (during which time Diprotodon gained a heavier, shaggier fur coat). The name ‘Diprotodon’ actually means ‘two forward teeth,’ as it possessed four pairs of incisors (three upper and one lower pair) which continued to grow throughout its life. Each of its four molars was high-crowned, meaning that it ate harsh types of foods - one Lake Callabonna specimen appears to have eaten salt bush, but that may have been during a drought.
Diprotodon had little to fear from most predators, by virtue of its size. The few exceptions to this rule came in the form of Thylacoleo (a large marsupial lion which frequented the same waterway trails), Megalania (a giant goanna), crocodiles and, naturally, from human beings; a second theory (thought to be less credible) which relates to the creatures’ extinction suggests a ‘blitzkrieg’ style hunting frenzy (as the larger animals would have appeared to be a tantalising food source, by virtue of their bulk, docility and lack of speed). This second theory is disputed by the fact that evidence continues to emerge that human beings existed in Australia for many years before the megafauna became extinct, despite evidence at Cuddie Springs and elsewhere that stone tools were used to butcher the animals. It is also true that fire became more prolifically used by Aboriginal hunters around the same time as the creatures’ extinction.
It also bears note that the precise dimensions of this animal have been subjected to much conjecture; where it was initially thought to have weighed one tonne, it is now thought to have weighed as much as 2.7 tonnes (unlike Megalania, which has been ‘downgraded’ to a mere 7 metres). As an aside, the creatures’ size and the enduring nature of indigenous Australian oral history has led some to suspect that this creature was the source of myths about the Bunyip. Today, the most genetically similar animals are the comparatively miniscule koala and wombat.
Images of Diprotodon: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/science/rco/postgrad/phd/diprotodon.jpg (skull only - courtesy of the Natural History Museum, London).
http://www.samuseum.sa.gov.au/fossils/images/fgw7/diprotodon.jpg (frontal view, slightly off to the creature’s right side - courtesy of the South Australian Museum).
http://www.abc.net.au/science/news/img/diproto.jpg (skull only - courtesy of ABC Online ).
http://www.cryptozoology.com/cryptids/images/bunyip05.jpg (side view, from the creature’s left - courtesy of ‘Cryptozoology, the scientific study of hidden animals’).
http://www.elykish.com/Illustrations/Boo0kOfLife/large/Diprotodon.jpg (illustrated fully clothed, with some of its contemporaries - courtesy of ‘Ely Kish, artist’).
http://www.ausemade.com.au/diary/0001/images/010911009.jpg (loosely assembled bones - courtesy of ‘Travel :: Ausemade.com’).
Sources:http://www.samuseum.sa.gov.au/pdf/Diprotodon.pdf (South Australian Museum)
http://www.pressroom.com/~cromag/images/time_scale.gif (Frontline Communications Corp.)
http://acl.arts.usyd.edu.au/research/cuddie/cuddie.html (University of Sydney - Archeology Dept.)
Further information on Australian megafauna can be obtained from the South Australian Museum:
Ph: (08) 8207 7500
Fax: (08) 8207 7430