Extinct before we knew much about it

pig-footed bandicoot

I think it’s really hard for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere to understand what special place Australia is in terms of biodiversity.

It is largest area in the world that has been isolated from the rest of the continents long enough for evolution to take an entirely different course, but when Europeans came, so much of the biodiversity wound up disappearing. Unfortunately, this is still going on.

One animal I wish we’d been able to study more closely before it became extinct is the pig-footed bandicoot (Chaeropus ecaudatus). This animal was a bandicoot that had evolved something similar to cloven hooves on the front feet. Cloven hooves, are the trademark of the Artiodactyls, the very successful group of placental mammals that includes cows, sheep, goats, deer, and pigs. But here was a bandicoot that had them on its front feet. Its hind feet had a single “hoof,” with two vestigial toes higher up the leg, which were almost like the double dewclaws of a Great Pyrenees or Beauceron.

No other animal, placental or otherwise, has produced such an unusual toe arrangement.

We know very little about this animal. It was rare when Europeans arrived. It’s gone now. We don’t know what killed it off. Cats usually get the blame. The end of aboriginal burning also gets pointed out. Burning created areas where new shoots could pop up, and this omnivorous animal was able to us those areas as its main habitat.

The truth is there just so much we don’t know. There is even debate about how well this animal actually moved and why it would evolve such unusual toes.

We have eye witness accounts, and the animals were reported to be alive as late as the 1950s. But not enough zoologists were interested in them at the time, and they were exceedingly rare. So we’ve got horrible gaps in knowledge about them.

This actually isn’t that unusual. Look up the literature on marsupial moles, which are similarly quite rare and horribly under-studied.

Because the pig-footed bandicoot went extinct only in the 1950s, there is actually a bit better chance that there might be a few living out in some remote region than there is for extant thylacines. For some reason, this animal has never captured the imaginations of any naturalists in the same way the thylacine has.

But here we have a sort of marsupial “chevrotain,” which is every bit as interesting as a marsupial “wolf.”

Parallel evolution is always pretty cool.

It’s a shame that species go extinct before we can learn about them.


Natural History

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