Australian Journal of Zoology Australian Journal of Zoology Society
Evolutionary, molecular and comparative zoology

A review of terrestrial mammalian and reptilian carnivore ecology in Australian fossil faunas, and factors influencing their diversity: the myth of reptilian domination and its broader ramifications

Australian Journal of Zoology 50(1) 1 - 24
Published: 16 April 2002


The notion that Australia’s large, terrestrial carnivore faunas of the middle Tertiary to Pleistocene were dominated by reptiles has gained wide acceptance in recent decades. Simple but sweeping hypotheses have been developed seeking to explain this perceived ecological phenomenon. However, a review of the literature does not support these interpretations, which are based on largely speculative and, in many cases, clearly erroneous assumptions. Few size estimates of fossil reptilian taxa are based on quantitative methodology and, regardless of method, most are restricted to maximum dimensions. For species of indeterminate growth, this practice generates misleading perceptions of biological significance. In addition to misconceptions with respect to size, much speculation concerning the lifestyles of large extinct reptiles has been represented as fact. In reality, it has yet to be demonstrated that the majority of fossil reptiles underpinning the story of reptilian domination were actually terrestrial. No postcranial evidence suggests that any Australian mekosuchine crocodylian was less aquatic than extant species, while a semi-aquatic habitus has been posited for madtsoiid snakes and even the giant varanid, Megalania. Taphonomic data equivocally supports the hypothesis that some Australian mekosuchines were better adapted to life on land than are most extant crocodylians, but still semi-aquatic and restricted to the near vicinity of major watercourses. On the other hand, the accelerating pace of discovery of new large mammalian carnivore species has undermined any prima facie case for reptilian supremacy regarding pre-Pleistocene Australia (that is, if species richness is to be used as a gauge of overall impact). However, species abundance and consumption, not richness, are the real measures. On this basis, even in Pleistocene Australia, where species richness of large mammalian carnivores was relatively low, available data expose the uncommon and geographically restricted large contemporaneous reptiles as bit players. In short, the parable of a continent subject to a Mesozoic rerun, wherein diminutive mammals trembled under the footfalls of a menagerie of gigantic ectotherms, appears to be a castle in the air. However, there may be substance to some assertions. Traditionally, erratic climate and soil-nutrient deficiency have been invoked to explain the perception of low numbers or relatively small sizes of fossil mammalian carnivore taxa in Australia. But these arguments assume a simple and positive relationship between productivity, species richness and maximum body mass and either fail to recognise, or inappropriately exclude, other factors. Productivity has undoubtedly played a role, but mono-factorial paradigms cannot account for varying species richness and body mass among Australia’s fossil faunas. Nor can they explain differences between Australian fossil faunas and those of other landmasses. Other factors that have contributed include sampling bias, a lack of internal geographic barriers, competition with large terrestrial birds and aspects of island biogeography unique to Australia, such as landmass area and isolation, both temporal and geographic.

© CSIRO 2002

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