Scientist Smackdown: Were Giant Kangaroos Hunted Into Extinction?

By Eliza Strickland | June 23, 2009 8:56 am

giant kangarooThe giant, prehistoric kangaroo that once hopped over the Australian landscape may have been wiped out by the first human settlers on that continent, a new study argues. In making this claim, the researchers are entering into a long-running debate over whether Australia’s “megafauna,” which also included marsupial lions and hippo-sized wombats, were driven extinct by the changing climate or by overzealous hunting. And while the new study, which will be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, makes an interesting case for the latter hypothesis, some researchers are not convinced.

Researchers analyzed the teeth of the nearly seven-foot-tall kangaroo, known as Procoptodon goliahto determine what it ate and drank. Different sources of water and food leave trace amounts of particular types, or isotopes, of hydrogen and carbon atoms, which are deposited in the teeth like a recorded diet. Additionally, tiny patterns of wear give clues about the type of food a given creature chewed. The team concluded that the giant kangaroos fed mainly on saltbush shrubs [BBC News]. These hardy bushes thrive in arid conditions, which makes it less likely that the kangaroos ran out of food as the continent’s climate got hotter and drier.

P. goliah is thought to have gone extinct about 45,000 years ago–that’s 5,000 years after humans are thought to have first arrived in Australia. The high intake of saltbushes would have meant the giant kangaroo drank more water and would have been frequently found at waterholes and therefore vulnerable to hunters. These combined factors led the scientific team to determine that “human hunting was a more likely extinction cause”. Unlike its modern-day relatives, the giant kangaroo was very big and imposing and not as agile. “These were a lot slower and gravitated towards waterholes, so they were basically sitting ducks for the humans,” [The Times], says lead researcher Gavin Prideaux.

Archaeologist Judith Field is one of the skeptics of the new study. Her main concern is that there is no direct evidence showing the kangaroo was hunted by humans. “If you’re going to make any case about humans and these megafauna then you’ve got to have them in the same place in the same time,” she says. “You’ve got to find archaeological sites that have megafauna in them with evidence of butchering. And we just don’t have these,” [Australian Broadcasting Corporation].

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Image: Peter Trusler/Australian Postal Corporation

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Origins, Living World
  • Vlad

    What if I were to tell you I had a photograph?

  • Sundance

    Actually, there are aboriginal “Dreaming stories” (basically creation myths – although that’s a pretty crude description since the present is considered part of the Dreaming too) which describe giant kangaroos that would trample campsites and frighten people in the night. Then one day a brave warrior impressed a spirit-being, who told him how to make fire, and his tribe burnt the scrub around their campsites to drive off the giant kangaroos. That sounds like a pretty plausible account (cultural memory) of humans causing megafauna extinction by changing the landscape, rather than hunting, if you ask me. Humans change environment, local species go extinct. Surprise, surprise.

  • Romeo Vitelli

    This reminds me of a point Jared Diamond once made. He said you could always tell approximately when humans entered a new territory by dating the mass extinctions.

  • Eliza Strickland

    Hi, Sundance — that’s a fascinating myth! Thanks for bringing it around.

    According to the BBC, the researchers did make a point of saying that “fire does not propagate well among saltbush,” so maybe they were aware of that myth and had considered that explanation. But it seems clear that the debate is far from over.

  • Nessy

    They might have been hunted away (people used to hunt a lot…), they might have been the victims of civilisation. Either way it´s a pity. They were impressive animals. Hopefully extinctions of fascinating animals can be prevented somehow in the future.

  • alyssa

    i am doing a project on the giant kandaroo and i was wondering if you knew the life span of this animal.

  • Passer-by

    Heyy , I’m doing a project on wild life conserving and i would appreciate helps from people that know facts about kangaroos . :) Thanks !

  • brent

    i think that the giant kangaroo was not hunted into extinction.

  • http://Google Laurie

    This animal is a large animal endemic to Australia. They all have one thing in common no matter what type they are, it’s that they all have powerful black feet, they are smart, and they have a really good use in their tails because it can just SLAP you right in your face.


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