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"Bone Diggers"

Nova

by Kyle MacDonald

You're probably in a city somewhere right now. Probably nowhere near a remote limestone cavern in the middle of the vast Nullarbor plain of Australia. And I bet five bucks that you haven't thought about fossil poachers once today. Or this week. Or ever. But that's what "bone diggers" like Australian Paleontologist John Long have to contend with, day in, and day out.

Part paleontologist, part rebel and part giver of epic quotes, John leads a team of beer sipping, footy playing scientists deep into the vast desert plain of outback Australia on the fossil search of their lifetimes. John wears his spelunking helmet backwards as he casually drops action hero gems like, "Leave no corner of the cave unsearched."

I'll admit it: I'm one of those guys who pretty much assumes that every prehistoric species has already been found, cataloged and is in a museum right now collecting dust. Case closed, that's it. But the promise that we don't have the complete picture, and that there is amazing amounts of things to discover about our past, gives me a thrill, for sure. Possibly more than watching Jurassic Park.

John and his band of merry bone diggers luck out and get an unprecedented find: the first ever complete skeleton of Thylacoleo carnifex, a prehistoric Marsupial Lion. Thylacoleo carnifex was a predator to contend with in it's day, a renegade carnivore, but also with the teeth of a herbivore. And since it lived in Australia, was a marsupial, and said g'day, it carried it's children in a pouch. It was pretty much the ultimate prehistoric hybrid SUV lion. Meat and veggies to move, kids safe on the inside. The crew was elated to find the bones, and were careful to cover their tracks to the remote cave to ward off prehistoric bone poachers who operate in a "thriving international black market in ancient animal bones."

After the bones are back safe in the lab and all the CT scans and bone reconstruction has taken place, scientists ponder reasons why the animal was made extinct in the first place. The theory is raised that maybe the lions were made extinct by the impact upon the land by the Australian aboriginal people when they first arrived about 50 000 years ago. Cut to a clip of the Thylacoleo carnifex bones laid out on black velvet, safely behind glass while formal attired paleontologists snap photos and applaud the discovery and careful preservation of this important ancient clue to the mysteries of the animal kingdom. On one hand I found this deeply rooting, and thought about how little we still know about the world at large, and how fragile the ecosystem of the planet really is, despite our growing desensitization to mainstream media's ever more intense eye-catching graphics concerning things like global climate change, and the like. I looked up at the ceiling, took a deep breath and thought about where we stand as living organisms on the face of the earth for a minute or two, then John said "Looking back on those halcyon days of the Thylac LEO expedition..." and I quickly snapped out of my trance to hear him utter my favorite line of the show: " A large part of my heart is with the Thylacleo carnifex, and always will be."

A sentence I never thought I'd hear today, but am surprisingly glad I did. Especially with those evil fossil poachers lurking in the shadows.

Comments

I really liked the show. It really showed what could be done with the technology we have today. Who would think that there was an animal like that living. I love NOVA! I watch it every time it is on. Thanks for posting such an educational show.I just hope that more people would watch it. I watch it with my family all the time. I hope that you keep making such educational shows that put things the way that they really happened.

Glad to have a Nova program involved in new science. Tired of
too many historical shows. Fascinating topic and locale.
How did paleontologists determine this animal to be a lion
without DNA? There's so much rat in those teeth and hind quarters and tail that I can't figure a felix connection...but I'm
no paleontologist.
To an amateur like me I would have guessed they were giant
prairie dogs that lived underground and set up sink holes to catch prey; then they'd fall on them as a gang and rip them up
with those thumbnails. Love that name. Really musical.

Nothing but fascinated compliments from me about this excellent delivery on television, except for my amazement that in the animation the Marsupial Lion walked with both legs of one side of its body in unison. I have never seen that in real life, and am either surprised about this stunningly well-balancing animal or the lack of an explanation for it on the programme. All four-legged animals I've seen walk with the front leg of one side and the back leg of the other side in kind of a unison, but not both legs of one side at a time.
The other part that is jogging my mind is that I have seen footage of the hunting marsupial of Australia; it was captured on film before it went extinct. The big question I have is whether I am confusing it with another Australian hunting marsupial (it's been fifteen years at least since I saw the footage) that died out when the white men came to the continent, or if the documentary was incomplete in its information delivery.
I know these are peculiar questions I have, but I did enjoy the documentary enormously. Two giant Marsupial Lion thumbs up.

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