Peter Schouten AM namesake for marsupial lion

Namesake: Peter Schouten AM in his studio at Bobin. Photo: Scott Calvin
Namesake: Peter Schouten AM in his studio at Bobin. Photo: Scott Calvin

There are not too many people on our planet who can say they have had an animal species named after them. 

Bobin wildlife artist Peter Schouten AM can.. He is the namesake for a newly discovered ancient marsupial lion, the Wakaleo schouteni.

The honour comes from a team of scientists from the University of NSW that are describing the extinct animal. Peter has been working alongside the paleontologists for about 40 years.

“They’re a wonderful team of experts in there. They predominantly deal with the Riversleigh Fossil Site up in north western Queensland,” Peter said.

“This is one of the most productive fossil sites on earth, actually. It spans from about 30 million years ago right through to the present day. And so over a long period of time they uncover fossils, and amongst those you get these rarities which are the marsupial carnivores.

“I was asked if they could name it after me, and I was absolutely blown away by that fact and it’s a tremendous honour,” Peter said.

“The AM thing was of enormous importance to me, but that’s sort of a recognition by the Australian people, whereas this is a recognition by peers and, for me, this is just as significant.

“The reason they decided to use me as its namesake was because of all the work I’ve done in the past in paleo reconstruction, in particular with fossils from the Riversleigh site. I provide that link between a dry scientific paper and something that the public can digest. I give them an image that the public can look at.”

The Wakaleo schouteni is from a group of extinct marsupials called the marsupial lions (Thylacoleonidae). Within this group of marsupials is a number of different distinct species.

In between those two you get a suite of different sized beasties, which my one happens to fall into.

Peter Schouten AM

“They range from the almost kitten-sized Microleo attenboroughi, which was named after David Attenborough, right up to the most recent one, Thylacoleo, which was about the size of a lioness. But in between those two you get a suite of different sized beasties, which my one happens to fall into.”

Marsupial lions are not, however, cat-like. On the evolutionary tree they sit somewhere between the koala and the wombat, Peter says. The way he describes them is scarily fascinating.

“They’re tremendously interesting things. For instance, a lion will use its huge canines for stabbing with. This thing has got hugely enlarged lower incisors –  they’re like a pair of stilettos that it uses for stabbing or garroting.

“It’s also got a gigantic thumb claw which it uses for slashing and presumably it’s also adaptation for climbing in trees. There’s been a lot of work done on limb mechanics of these things and it shows that it had a wide range of movements from being able to shimmy up trees to be able to slash the throat of its victims,” Peter said.

Peter started working on creating a visual representation of the Wakaleo schounteni immediately he heard the news it was named after him. However the public will not get to see the results until the scientific paper is published. The scientists are currently preparing a paper on the animal for publication.

“What it is is a formal description of the new species. It’s a fairly lengthy process but essentially the fossil is found; it’s then taken out of the matrix, out of the rock around it, cleaned, and then it’s described, and describing means writing a paper about it.

“If it’s seen to be a distinctive species, then a formal paper is written and submitted to a reputable journal. And once accepted by that journal, it then has to go through peer review. Only after that then will they publish and that’s when the species name takes precedence, or is allowed,” Peter said.

Peter expects it will be published before Christmas, at which time the image will also be released.