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Cooling climate drove evolution of Tasmanian Devil

Wednesday 6 December 2017

A BIG drop in global temperatures 12-14 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.

Writing in BMC Evolutionary Biology, the scientists 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 of the University of Salford, “and the pattern we found was striking: three of the four major dasyurid groups diversified almost simultaneously, immediately after this big temperature drop.”

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.

“The loss of many species may explain why the dasyurids began to diversify rapidly during this period” said Beck, adding that 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 dasyuridsare 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.

The paper: Total evidence phylogeny and evolutionary timescale for Australian faunivorous marsupials (Dasyuromorphia) is written by Shimona Kealy (AustralianNational University) and Dr Robin Beck (University of Salford, UK) and published in BMC Evolutionary Biology. Dr Robin Beck contributes to teaching on Biological Skills, Contemporary Topics in Conservation Management, Evolution Development and Adaptation, Frontiers in Wildlife Biology, Human Genetics and Scientific Methods on Undergraduate and Masters courses in Biology and Wildlife Conservation.