The Talk.Origins Archive: Exploring the Creation/Evolution Controversy

The Natural History of Marsupials
Chris Nedin
[Last Update: June 28, 1994]

A writer asks: "The question is not how the escaped from Australia etc, but how they got back there. But the evolutionist faces this problem as well. Would one of you care to volunteer your answer?"

The marsupials and placentals diverged from a pantotheran stem stock in the late Cretaceous. The first marsupials appeared in North America approximately 80 million years ago, e.g. Alphadon (marsupials can be distinguished from placentals by their dentition - marsupials have 3 premolars and 4 molars whilst placentals have 3-5 premolars and 3 molars). Towards the end of the Late Cretaceous, marsupials start appearing in South America (Peru and Bolivia). In the Eocene marsupials radiated into Europe, North Africa and reached Asia by the Oligocene. However these groups rapidly became extinct. South America parted company with North America in the Eocene, effectively blocking the rapid radiation of placentals in North America at this time from spreading to South America. During the Eocene, marsupials reached Antarctica, which was attached to South America and Australia at this time. Marsupials could follow a belt of Northophagus vegetation all the way around from southern South America, across Antarctica into southern Australia. The first marsupials appear in Australia in the Oligocene via this route. Australia parted company from Antarctica in the Miocene, effectively isolating the marsupial fauna here.

Although there has been a marsupial fossil found in the Oligocene of Asia, it closely resembles the European form Peratherium, which is a didelphid, and has little affinities to Australian forms. Therefore colonization of Australia from the north is not considered viable. Australian marsupials (extant and extinct) share many affinities with South American marsupials and extinct Antarctic forms, indicating a southern migration route for marsupials and explaining the lack of placental mammals in Australia. By the time South America redocked with North America in the Plio-Pleistocene, South America was already separated from Antarctica and Antarctica from Australia. So the reintroduction of placentals into South America couldn't continue on to Antarctica/Australia. Note: this does not preclude any placentals from reaching Australia, just significant numbers of them.


Fossil: Radiometric: Palaeomagnetic:


|  Pleistocene  | ----- Nth/Sth America redock
|-------------- |
| Miocene       | ----- Antartica/Australia split
|-------------- |
|               | ----- Marsupials extinct Asia/Nth Africa/Europe
| Oligocene     | ----- Marsupials in Australia/Asia
|-------------- |
|               | ----- Marsupials extinct Nth America
|               |
|               | ----- Marsupials reach Antarctica
| Eocene        | ----- Radiation of Placentals in Nth America
|               | ----- Sth/Nth America split,
|-------------- |                       Marsupials in Europe
| Paleocene     |
|               | ----- Sth American Marsupials
| Late          |
|   Cretaceous  |
|               | ----- First Marsupials (Nth America)
|               |

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