Scientists have discovered a 265-million-year-old fossil of a giant predator that ruled the Earth long before the dinosaurs. The fossil, found in Brazil, belongs to Pampaphoneus biccai, a member of the early therapsid clade dinocephalia, a group of large and terrifying animals that thrived in the Permian period.
The fossil consists of an almost-complete skull measuring almost 36 cm (14.2 inches) and some skeletal bones. It is the second specimen of Pampaphoneus biccai ever found, and reveals new features that were previously unknown for the species.
Pampaphoneus biccai was the largest meat eater of its time, with sharp canine teeth adapted for capturing prey and a powerful bite that could crush bones. It was also a formidable sight, reaching up to 3 meters (10 feet) in length and weighing up to 400 kilograms (882 pounds).
The fossil sheds light on the diversity and evolution of dinocephalians
Dinocephalians were a diverse group of animals that included both herbivores and carnivores. They were among the first therapsids, a lineage that eventually gave rise to mammals.
Pampaphoneus biccai is one of the oldest and most primitive dinocephalians, and shows some features that are shared with reptiles, such as a pineal foramen (a hole in the skull for a light-sensing organ) and a large temporal fenestra (an opening behind the eye socket).
The fossil also helps to understand the biogeography and evolution of dinocephalians, which were widespread across Pangaea, the supercontinent that existed at that time. Fossils of other dinocephalians have been found in Russia and South Africa, but Pampaphoneus biccai is the only known species in Brazil.
The researchers say that Pampaphoneus biccai was probably closely related to its Russian relatives, but had some differences in skull shape and size. They suggest that these differences may reflect adaptations to different environments or prey types.
The fossil was found in an area rich in Permian life
The fossil was discovered near São Gabriel in Southern Brazil, in an area where bones are not very common, but always hold pleasant surprises. The region has yielded fossils of other Permian animals, such as the tiny reptile Rastodon and the enormous amphibian Konzhukovia.
Pampaphoneus biccai lived at the end of the Permian, just before a mass extinction event – the largest ever – wiped out 86 percent of all animal species on Earth. The cause of this extinction is still debated, but some possible factors include volcanic eruptions, climate change, and ocean acidification.
The researchers say that finding more fossils of Pampaphoneus biccai and other Permian animals will help to reconstruct the ecology and diversity of this ancient world, and to understand how life recovered after the catastrophe.