was a giant marsupial that lived during the Australian Ice Age. The species and its genus were first described in 1873 by Richard Owen, the founder of the Natural History Museum in London, based on the front portion of a skull from Gippsland, Victoria. The teeth had features similar to kangaroo molars so Owen believed it to be a large kangaroo and named it Palorchestes
from the Greek for "ancient" and "leaper". It wasn't until the 1950s that this interpretation was challenged.
species are only known from fragmentary pieces found in what would have been forest environments while they were alive. Their fossils have been found from Tasmania to northern Queensland but are typically rare at each site, suggesting Palorchestes
was a solitary animal. A complete skeleton has never been found so their appearance and lifestyle has been reconstructed from pieces. The best-known fossils of Palorchestes
come from limestone caves in Victoria and New South Wales and the best-preserved skull (NMV P 216490) comes from near Buchan, Eastern Gippsland. It was found in 2000 in the ceiling of a newly discovered cave by expert local cavers Kim & John van Dyk who brought its lower jaws to Melbourne for identification. Museum staff immediately recognised the significance of the find and the rest of the skull was subsequently retrieved.
was the largest species in the genus Palorchestes
. It was about the size of a buffalo and probably weighed over 1,000 kg. Some older reconstructions depicted them as having short trunks because the openings for the nose are very high up, close to the eye socket rather than at the end of the skull. They've even been called marsupial tapirs because this kind of nose structure is a feature usually seen on animals with trunks like the tapir. However, trunks need muscles to manipulate them and these muscles leave obvious scars and attachment points on bones. Palorchestes
doesn't have any of these, suggesting it did not have a trunk. Reconstructions from the last few years therefore no longer show Palorchestes
with a trunk but rather a prehensile lip and long, protrusible tongue.
had teeth like a giant herbivore but also deep, curving claws, a combination that has puzzled researchers. Palorchestes
would have been able to stand on its hindlimbs and recent research has proposed that perhaps it used its specialised forelimbs to haul itself onto its back legs against a tree trunk, allowing it to reach up into the foliage with its long tongue. The claws might have been used to hook into the bark of the tree to help support Palorchestes
while standing on two limbs or might have been used to pull plants down to ground level for easier access.
While there are still many questions about what Palorchestes
looked like and how it lived, they were well adapted for life in a temperate forest habitat. Unfortunately, this left Palorchestes
vulnerable to environmental changes and they went extinct around 40,000 years ago, along with much of Australia's large native fauna.
is one of eight candidates for Victoria's fossil emblem.