This pleasant-looking fellow is diprotodon optatum, a giant marsupial that lived in Australia for millions of years. We've now discovered the first complete skeleton of this marsupial, proving the only things more bizarre than Australian animals are ancient Australian animals.
This particular wombat is generally thought to be the largest marsupial to ever walk the Earth. They weighed nearly 7,000 pounds and were as much as 14 feet long. The new skeleton dates back to about two million years ago, but these creatures went extinct only recently, roughly 50,000 years ago.
That likely makes diprotodon contemporaneous with the first modern humans to reach Australia, although they wouldn't have had an easy time hunting this beast to death. Even though it was a herbivore, if diprotodon was anything like modern, smaller wombats, it would have had razor sharp teeth and a willingness to use them when threatened.
Professor Mike Archer of the University of New South Wales offers this awesome description of the creature:
"We found the most gigantic marsupial ever known. These were very huge animals but with pouches. If one tried to visualise what this thing looked like, you'd have to sort of think of a gigantic wombat on steroids."
The skeleton was discovered in Queensland's Floraville Station, which has been a hotbed of paleontology activity for years. The fact that the skeleton was found as one complete set is hugely encouraging, as it suggests the area was almost completely undisturbed over the past two million years. If that's the case, there's a very good chance that other ancient megafauna is waiting to be discovered.
This particular diprotodon is headed to Riversleigh Fossil Centre, where researchers hope the complete skeleton will offer vital new clues to the nature of this ancient beast. It will join other such examples of ancient Australian wildlife as a lion-like marsupial, a carnivorous rat kangaroo, and - perhaps most awesomely - a crocodile that lived in trees.