A new study published in the journal Scientific Reports shows that the bandicoots are much older than assumed. The isolated teeth that were unearthed reveal that the Australasian marsupials probably existed more than 50 million years ago.

It was thought that bandicoots, also named Lemdubuoryctes aruensis, emerged 25 million years ago but went extinct between five to 10 million years ago due to drier environmental condition. However, the teeth discovered in the Aru Islands of Eastern Indonesia indicate that the animals’ early ancestors existed 50 million years ago.

Ancient bandicoots are believed to have resided in the savannah plain that stretched between New Guinea and Australia. The research team also believes that their emergence probably coincided with the increasing seasonality and the proliferation of open eucalyptus woodlands in the continental interior of Australia.

“While retreating rainforests and spreading grasslands did provide a backdrop for ecosystem change 5-10 million years ago, the Australian fauna likely adapted via changing its distribution rather than undergoing wholesale extinction and replacement,” explains Michael Westerman, an Emeritus Professor from La Trobe University in Australia.

The researchers agree that bandicoots are ancient survivors of climate change but they assert that these animals currently face threat from the changing environment. According to lead author Benjamin Kear from the Museum of Evolution at Uppsala University:

“Bandicoots are the marsupial equivalents of rodents and rabbits that today occupy a spectrum of desert through rainforest habitats across Australia, New Guinea and surrounding islands. Alarmingly, however, most bandicoot species are under dire threat of extinction from introduced predators, habitat loss and human hunting.”

Kear concludes, “Our study has further implications for future conservation. Arid zone bandicoots are amongst the most vulnerable mammals in Australasia today, with multiple species having gone extinct within the last 100 years. By demonstrating their profound evolutionary antiquity, we can thus serve to highlight how extremely urgent it is to protect these living fossils as part of Australia’s unique biodiversity.”