Extinct ‘pig-footed bandicoot’ galloped around Australia as an awkwardly small horse

Two <em>Chaeropus yirratji</em> a newly described species of pig-footed bandicoot, pitter-pattered around Australia on their asymmetrical legs.
(Peter Schouten/WA Museum)

Scientists have discovered a new species of pig-footed bandicoot — extinct Australian marsupial that looks like a kangaroo, an opossum and a deer was a little too friendly at the local pub — and it is about as strange as you would hope.

Pig-footed bandicoots are long ears, long-tailed herbivores that once scurried over the sandy, dry stretches of central and western Australia for tens of thousands of years before they went extinct in the 1950s. Maxing out with a body weight of about 1.3 pounds (600 grams; about the weight of a basketball and a length of approximately 10 inches (26 cm), these mammals are considered to be one of the smallest grazing animals that have ever lived, according to the authors of a new study published 13 March in the journal Zootaxa.

With two functional toes on their front paws and only one on each hind leg, the bandicoots a bit of a composed-by-committee look. However, according to the interviews with aboriginal tribe members in the 1980’s, the tripod toe arrangement will not interfere with the small animals of “gallop” at surprisingly high speeds when distressed. [Marsupial Gallery: A Pouchful of Cute]

The aboriginal interviews are of crucial importance for researchers, because there is no pig-footed bandicoots left to study in the wild; only 29 fossil specimens remain in the world of museums. In the new study, researchers from the Natural History Museum in London and the Western Australian Museum analyzed all 29 of those instances, the taking of careful bone measurements and comparing of DNA samples collected in the 1940’s.

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The results showed that the pig-footed bandicoot fossils represented two different species; previously, researchers thought that there was only one type.

The newly described species, referred to as Chaeropus yirratji after a local aboriginal name for the creature, has larger hind feet and a longer tail than its better-studied cousin (Chaeropus ecaudatus), and may have had different grazing behavior, the researchers wrote. Future understanding of the differences between the two types hinges on researchers being able to find more fossils, which tend to be buried in owl droppings on the cave floors.

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Originally published on Live Science.

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