Wildlife illustration by Peter Schouten

Research which notes the impact of climate change on the evolution of Australia’s native bilbies and bandicoots has featured on the cover of the prestigious Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. The article was authored by the Western Australian Museum’s Mammals Curator Dr Kenny Travouillon.

“Climate change has been a very important factor in the evolution of bilbies and bandicoots, placing a selective pressure for survival in a harsh, arid environment,” Dr Travouillon said.

“While ancient primitive bandicoots were still around in rainforest on the east coast of Australia during the Pliocene Epoch (5.3 to 2.6 million years ago), they became extinct in the Pleistocene (2.5 million to 12,000 years ago), a time commonly referred to as the Ice Age, as a result of climate change and loss of rainforest habitat.”

Dr Travouillon studied fossils from the now extinct marsupials that were loaned to the Western Australian Museum from the collections of other museums across Australia. Even though some of the fossil groups comprised just a few teeth, Dr Travouillon was also able to name four new species from his research.

“It is pretty amazing how much we can tell from only a few teeth,” Dr Travouillon said. “There are very few fossils from the Pliocene and the most common fossils from small animals are their teeth because the hard enamel casing helps to preserve them.

“Mammal teeth are like a digital print, you can tell species apart from one another, what other species they are related to and also what the animal ate.”

Dr Travouillon worked with wildlife illustrator and paleo-artist Peter Schouten to create a beautifully detailed representation of the ancient bilbies and bandicoots in their Pliocene habitat, which features on this month’s cover of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. Dr Travouillon used information from the animals’ descendants and close relatives, as well as information about their habitat, to anticipate other characteristics such as what their fur colour might have been.

The animals in the original artwork are drawn to life size and situated in an environment they would have belonged to. The shape of the animal is based on living counterparts and knowledge of the evolution of their body shape, using more complete older fossils.

The ancestors of today’s bilbies, pig-footed bandicoots and short-nosed and barred bandicoots were all present during the Pliocene and were even then starting to occupy some of the more arid habitats their descendants occupy today.

“Because I had more fossil material to work with, I could look more closely at the fauna from different times and how the climate had changed, and was able to learn much more about the evolution of this group of animals,” Dr Travouillon said.

“This is incredibly important in helping us to understand how the world, and our place in it, has evolved and clearly demonstrates the value of museum collections in informing current and future scientific research.”

The full scientific article can be found at http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/ujvp20/current.


Media contact
Tracy Peacock
Media and Communications Officer
Western Australian Museum