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Cool­ing cli­mate drove evo­lu­tion of Tas­man­ian devil while other mar­su­pi­als went extinct

pub­lished 11 Decem­ber 2017 | mod­i­fied 11 Decem­ber 2017

Tasmanian devilTas­man­ian devil. Con­ser­va­tion Park Taranna Tas­ma­nia. Pho­tog­ra­phy Wayne McLean. Cre­ative Com­mons license CC BY-​SA 3.0A big drop in global tem­per­a­tures 1214 mil­lion years ago may explain the evo­lu­tion­ary suc­cess of Australia’s unique mar­su­pial car­ni­vores, a new study has found.

Tas­man­ian Dev­ils, the cat-​like Quoll and sev­eral shrew-​like species are among 80 species of car­niv­o­rous mar­su­pi­als called “dasyurids” which still inhabit parts of Aus­tralia and New Guinea.

Now researchers from the Aus­tralian National Uni­ver­sity and the Uni­ver­sity of Sal­ford in the UK have found evi­dence that while many rainforest-​dwelling species died out as a result of the tem­per­a­ture drops, the Tas­man­ian Devil and its rel­a­tives adapted to the new drier wood­land habitats.

Bite of the Tas­man­ian devil

(Source: National Geo­graphic YouTube channel)

In the arti­cle pub­lished on 4 Decem­ber in the jour­nal BMC Evo­lu­tion­ary Biol­ogy the sci­en­tists describe they com­bined genomic data from liv­ing dasyurids and other mar­su­pi­als with evi­dence from the fos­sil record to analyse how the group has diver­si­fied through time.

“This is the first time we’ve directly analysed genomic and fos­sil data in com­bi­na­tion to look at dasyurid evo­lu­tion” said co-​author Dr Robin Beck, “and the pat­tern we found was strik­ing: three of the four major dasyurid groups diver­si­fied almost simul­ta­ne­ously, imme­di­ately after this big tem­per­a­ture drop.”

The loss of many species may explain why the dasyurids began to diver­sify rapidly dur­ing this period.

Dr Robin Beck, co-​author, School of Envi­ron­ment and Life Sci­ences, Uni­ver­sity of Sal­ford, UK

The fos­sil record shows that many Aus­tralian mar­su­pi­als went extinct dur­ing this period of intense cli­mate change, with the envi­ron­ment becom­ing drier and colder, and wet rain­forests being replaced by more open wood­land environments.

One group of Aus­tralian mar­su­pi­als that suf­fered were the thy­lacines, which were also car­niv­o­rous and may have been com­peti­tors with the dasyurids. Future work will test whether dasyurids directly com­peted with thylacines.

Habi­tat con­cerns
It is unclear what effect cur­rent cli­mate change will have on Aus­tralian mar­su­pi­als, but many liv­ing dasyurids are restricted to very small ranges and are threat­ened with extinction.

If cli­mate change leads to the loss of the kind of habi­tat these species need, then they may have nowhere else to go”.

Dr Beck’s recent research includes the first sci­en­tific descrip­tion of Ana­to­li­adel­phys maasae, nick­named the ‘Euro Devil’ — an extinct mar­su­pial found in a fos­sil bed in Turkey.

(Source: Uni­ver­sity of Sal­ford news release, 06.12.2017)

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