The Tasmanian devil (genus: Sarcophilus) joins the LRT

Maybe best known
from old Warner Brothers cartoons, (Fig. 1), the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii; Boitard 1841; up to 65 cm long) has long been considered the largest living and most carnivorous member of the Dasyuridae (typically insectivorous mouse-to-dog-sized marsupials, but see below). 

Figure 1. The Warner Brothers version of the Tasmanian devil, affectionately called 'Taz' is known to eat a long list of animals...especially rabbits!

Figure 1. The Warner Brothers version of the Tasmanian devil, affectionately called ‘Taz’ is known to eat a long list of animals…especially rabbits!

a Tasmanian devil will consume about 15% of body weight in food each day. It also makes ‘unearthly screams, coughs and growls’. The dog-like animal has red ears, wide jaws and big sharp teeth that it likes to display. It can sit on its haunches, like a raccoon. Seems to have been the wolverine from down under. No wonder Warner Brothers made such a gluttonous cartoon character! Here’s a 3:12 minute NatGeo special on the Tasmanian devil.

Sarcophilus laniarius ((originally Didelphis ursina Harris 1807) Owen 1839) is the extant Tasmanian devil, traditionally considered the largest dasyurid. Following the extinction of the taller, wolf-like Thylacinus in 1936 Sarcophilus became the largest living carnivorous marsupial.

Figure 2. Tasmanian devil (Sarcophelis) skeleton.

Figure 2. Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus) skeleton.

According to the Australian Parks and Wildlife webpage
(below) “The famous gape or yawn of the Tasmanian devil that looks so threatening, can be misleading. This display is performed more from fear and uncertainty than from aggression.” 

Figure 3. Sacrophilus skull from and used with permission. Colors added.

Figure 3. Sacrophilus skull from and used with permission. Colors added.

Goodbye Marsupialiformes!
In their study of Didelphodon, Wilson et al. 2016 employed the clade Marsupialiformes (Vullo and Gheerbrant 2009) for taxa not included within Marsupialia (living metatheres) and Metatheria. One of the problems with the Wilson et al. taxon list was… taxon exclusion. No placentals were included. The large reptile tree (LRT, 1134 taxa) documents the need for adding placentals and fossil taxa because placentals diverged from arboreal carnivorous metatheres, like Caluromys in the LRT, as we learned earlier here. The opossum, Didelphis, nests as a derived marsupial in Wilson et al. It nests as a basal metathere in the LRT.

Here’s another Tasmanian Devil YouTube video:

Link to further details and sound file from the Australian Parks and Wildlife webpage.

Over the holidays
I have been busily adding taxa to the LRT, mostly small, mouse-like opossums, in order to iron out the phylogenetic issues that arose there. The corrections are solving problems that we will review over the next few days. Today, I can tell you that the Tasmanian devil (genus: Sarcophilus) nests between the smaller extant quoll (genus: Dasyurusno surprise there) and the devil-sized, formerly enigmatic Palaeocene Ernanodon (Fig. 4). If I am not mistaken, Sarcophilus and Ernanodon have never been tested together until now. This pushes the origin of pugnacious little Sarcophilus back to the K-T boundary, and possibly much deeper in time and not restricted to Tasmania or Australia where Sarcophilus fossils have been found that are less than 100,000 years old.

Molecular evidence
suggests devils split from quolls between 10 and 15 million years ago (Krajewski and Westerman 2003).

Figure 4. Now nesting more precisely and closely with Sarcophilus, the extant Tasmanian devil, is Ernanodon from the Palaeocene of China.

Figure 4. Now nesting more precisely and closely with Sarcophilus is Ernanodon from the Palaeocene of China. This enigma taxon was traditionally linked to anteaters, then pangolins. Perhaps Sarcophilus and Ernanodon have never been tested together until now. Note the difference in the feet between the museum mount and the drawing inserts. The inserts look more like those of sister taxa. Repairing such problems is what has to be done to create a high resolution cladogram.

Boitard P 1842. L’Ursin de Harris. Le Jardin des plantes: Description et mœurs des mammifères de la Ménagerie et du Muséum d’histoire naturelle. Paris: Gustave Barba. p. 204.
Harris GP 1807. Description of two new Species of Didelphis from Van Diemen’s Land. Transactions of the Linnean Society of London. 9: 174–78.
Krajewski C and Westerman M 2003. Molecular Systematics of Dasyuromorpha. In Jones, Menna; Dickman, Chris; Archer, Mike. Predators with Pouches: The Biology of Carnivorous Marsupials. Collingwood, Victoria: CSIRO Publishing. p. 16.
Vullo R and Gheerbrant E 2009. The oldest modern therian mammal from Europe and its bearing on stem marsupial paleobiogeography. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106(47):19910-19915.
Wilson GP, Eddale EG, Hoganson JW, Calede JJ and Vander Linden A 2016. A large carnivorous mammal from the Late Cretaceous and the North American origin of marsupials. Nature Communications 7:13734  PDF


According to Wikipedia
[􏰂 Marsupialia sensu Kielan- Jaworoswka et al.] is erected to account for the crown group Marsupialia (extant marsupials and related extinct fossil taxa) plus all stem marsupialiform taxa that are more closely related to them, as their sister taxa, than to Deltatheroida and basal Metatheria. Basal marsupialiforms, such as the North American taxa from the Early/Late Cretaceous, include the stem groups of the crown marsupials. Basal marsupialiforms include primitive Cretaceous taxa previously gathered in the paraphyletic taxon ‘‘Ameridelphia’’.

Metatheria includes Marsupialiformes and Deltatheroida (presumed sister groups), plus basal metatherians, such as Sinodelphys. Unfortunately Sinodelphys nests with the basal prototherian Megazostrodon in the LRT, so that raises a red flag.

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