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Understanding morphological variation in the extant koala as a framework for identification of species boundaries in extinct koalas (Phascolarctidae; Marsupialia)


Karen H. Blacka∗, Julien Louysb,c and Gilbert J. Pricec


aSchool of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of New South Wales, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia;
bGeosciences, Queensland Museum, South Brisbane BC, Queensland, Australia;

cSchool of Earth Sciences, The University of Queensland, St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia

 

ABSTRACT

We document morphological variation (both geographical and sexual) in the dentition of the extant koala, Phascolarctos cinereus, in order to facilitate discrimination of species boundaries in extinct phascolarctids. Considerable variation is evident in dental structures previously used to diagnose several phascolarctid fossil species. Consistent patterns of morphological variation are not evident between sexes or geographic regions, with variation as great between samples as within them. Metric variation is evident between the sexes in upper molar dimensions with Victorian (southern) males significantly larger than Victorian females, although this is not reflected in lower molar dimensions or in the Queensland (northern) sample. Male koalas from southern populations generally display significantly larger molars than their northern counterparts; however this trend is not evident in female upper molar dimensions. In both males and females, some, but not all, lower molar dimensions are larger in southern populations than northern. In light of these results, a systematic revision of species of Litokoala suggests L. ‘dicktedfordi’ is a junior synonym of L. kutjamarpensis, and the poorly known L. thurmerae is regarded to be a nomen dubium. Further, we describe a partial cranium of a new species of koala from Early Miocene sediments in the Riversleigh World Heritage Area, northern Australia. Litokoala dicksmithi sp. nov. is the fifth koala species recorded from the diverse rainforest assemblages of Riversleigh and the third species referred to the Oligo-Miocene genus Litokoala. Aspects of cranial morphology, including a shortened robust rostrum and broad, irregular nasal aperture, confirm placement of Litokoala as sister taxon to the modern genus Phascolarctos. Relatively large orbits and small body size suggest the possibility that L. dicksmithi was nocturnal, had enhanced visual acuity, and was a more agile arboreal species than the relatively sedentary extant koala.

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  • 2013
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