Kangaroo species, now extinct, identified by fossil hunters after being found in PNG highlands

The kangaroo is from a primitive genus that evolved before the modern kangaroos we find in Australia.(Supplied: Flinders University/Peter Schouten)

A primitive kangaroo has been classified as a new species, after re-analysis of fossil jawbones and teeth found in the remote highlands of Papua New Guinea in the 1970s.

Key points:

  • The kangaroo is thought to be from a new genus that migrated to New Guinea between 5 and 8 million years ago
  • The fossil was originally discovered in the 1970s during an expedition led my Mary-Jane Mountain to Simbu Province
  • Researchers will be returning to PNG to look for more intact fossil specimens

The extinct animal is believed to have been a rainforest browser, descended from a primitive genus that migrated from Australia to New Guinea between 5 and 8 million years ago.

That’s according to the results of a study published today in Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia.

The fossils were originally discovered on an expedition led by archaeologist Mary-Jane Mountain in the 1970s.

They were then classified in 1983 — by palaeontologist and PhD student at the time Tim Flannery — as belonging to a species in the genus Protemnodon.

Protemnodon is a genus of extinct megafauna that lived in Australia and New Guinea.

The last species in the genus is thought to have gone extinct in Australia about 42,000 years ago, and was a cousin of modern-day eastern grey and red kangaroos.

But researchers from Flinders University reclassified the PNG fossils as belonging to a new genus of kangaroo, after analysing 3D scans they took of the jawbones and teeth, located in the Papua New Guinea National Museum and Art Gallery.

Based on some very unique features of the teeth and jaw, the researchers propose that the kangaroo now be known as Nombe nombe — after the Nombe rockshelter in PNG’s Simbu Province where it was found, according to study lead author, PhD candidate Isaac Kerr from Flinders University.

“In the case of the Nombe, they’ve got these funny curved lophids or crests on the molars, which show they were doing something quite different from what the Protemnodon were doing,” Mr Kerr said.

“There were [features] that you don’t get in the more derived kangaroos like the grey and the red.”

The most recent fossils of Nombe nombe that have so far been discovered show it may have persisted in the highlands of New Guinea until at least 20,000 years ago.

With only a partial skeleton to go on, what it actually looked like is still up for debate, but there are some things the researchers are quite certain of, according to Mr Kerr.

Source: ABC News