Some 252 million years ago, it was a disastrous time to be alive. Erupting supervolcanoes destabilized ecosystems, plunging life on the planet into a series of extinctions over the course of a million years and permanently changing life on Earth.
But in what is now southern Africa, a few large predators managed to beat the odds for a while. In an article published Monday in Current Biology Researchers describe a new saber-toothed beast that appeared unexpectedly and then disappeared at the end of the extinction event, challenging ecological theory that large predators are the first to fall victim to extinction pressures. The discoveries help unlock some of the extinction dynamics of the Permian-Triassic transition, which could be helpful in better understanding what may result from the ecological crises facing life on our planet today.
Life on earth throughout the Permian Period, which lasted from about 298 million to 252 million years ago, was dominated by synapsids, the evolutionary precursors of mammals, or protomammals. Dinosaurs took millions of years to evolve.
“Permian synapsids included our own ancestors, and not enough people know about this,” said Christian Kammerer, research curator and paleontologist at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and an author on the paper. These synapsids, he added, “are more closely related to us than any dinosaur or other reptile.”
The gorgonopsians were a group within the synapsids. These four-legged carnivores hunted with saber-toothed fangs protruding from a rectangular, box-shaped snout. “They were kind of like the T.rex of their time,” said Pia Viglietti, a research scientist at the Field Museum of Natural History and another author on the paper.
The Earth’s land mass was then for the most part a single supercontinent Pangaea. The team found that, for about million years of Permian extinction. In almost factory-line succession, a series of gorgonopsians evolved, filled that niche, went extinct, and were then replaced by another.
But what surprised them was the discovery that a species of gorgonopsia had evolved and rapidly become dominant towards the end of the Permian extinction. It closely resembled a species the size of a Siberian tiger, Inostrancevia alexandri., which had previously only been found in Russia.
The two new specimens were discovered by Nthaopa Ntheri and John Nyaphuli in 2010 and 2011 during fieldwork led by Jennifer Botha, a co-author from the University of the Witwatersrand. But it wasn’t until the current team re-examined 77 Karoo gorgonopsis fossils that they realized it was a new species. (Mr. Nyaphuli was responsible for numerous significant fossil discoveries, Dr. Viglietti noted, and died in 2020.)
They named the animal Inostrancevia africana and propose that its ancestors migrated from north to south across the treacherous landmass of Pangaea. When their descendants dominated what became southern Africa, they had no real competitors as they fed on herds of herbivorous Lystrosaurus.
Juan Carlos Cisneros, a Permian paleontologist at the Federal University of Piauí in Brazil who was not involved in the research, said discovering similar gorgonopsians in both Russia and South Africa was “unexpected and exciting.”
“Apparently, which was bad luck for predators to the south,” he said, referring to the extinction of gorgonopsian species just before the African Inostrancevia. arrive, “it was an opportunity for those from the north”.
It wasn’t long before Inostrancevia africana faced its own extinction. This discovery, the team emphasizes, offers lessons that we must keep in mind.
“What killed the gorgonopsians and their entire ecosystem,” said Dr. Viglietti, “was a global warming crisis that occurred over hundreds of thousands of years.” He noted that in today’s world, “we are seeing these same changes in the course of a single human lifetime.”
Dr. Kammerer also sees the discovery as an opportunity to take another look at the Permian-Triassic extinction, which is often overlooked in favor of the age of dinosaurs that followed.
“Without this extinction, all indications are that protomammals would have continued to rule the Earth,” he said, “and the ancestors of the dinosaurs would never have had a chance.”