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Giant salamander-like beast was a top predator before the dinosaurs

Imagine traveling back in time, around forty million years before dinosaurs roamed Earth. Picture an ancient predator: fierce, patient, and lurking in swampy waters. Meet Gaiasia jennyae, an ancient swamp creature with a skull oddly resembling a toilet seat.

Its hunting strategy involved lying in wait, with jaws wide open, ready to capture any creature. This intriguing discovery adds a fascinating chapter to our understanding of prehistoric life.

What can we learn from such ancient predators, and how do they reshape our understanding of Earth’s history?

Giant salamander-like top predator

Jason Pardo, an NSF postdoctoral fellow at the Field Museum in Chicago and co-lead author of the study, described the impressive characteristics of Gaiasia jennyae.

He explained that this ancient creature was significantly larger than a human and likely inhabited the lower regions of swamps and lakes.

Pardo vividly described its distinctive features, stating, “It’s got a big, flat, toilet seat-shaped head, which allows it to open its mouth and suck in prey.”

He further emphasized the creature’s formidable dentition, noting, “It has these huge fangs, the whole front of the mouth is just giant teeth. It’s a big predator, but potentially also a relatively slow ambush predator.”

Affectionately dubbed the swamp creature with a toilet seat-shaped head, Gaiasia jennyae is believed to have hung around the swamp and lake bottoms while silently preparing for its next ambush.

How Gaiasia jennyae got its name

The name Gaiasia jennyae commemorates the location where the fossils were discovered: the Gai-as Formation in Namibia. It pays tribute to renowned paleontologist, Jenny Clack, celebrated for her work on the evolution of early tetrapods.

The term ‘tetrapod’ denotes four-limbed vertebrates that evolved from lobe-finned fishes, which laid the foundation for the evolution of a wide variety of species, including amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals.

Skeleton of Gaiasia jennyae recently unearthed. Credit: Marsicano
Skeleton of Gaiasia jennyae recently unearthed. Credit: Marsicano

“When we found this enormous specimen just lying on the outcrop as a giant concretion, it was really shocking. I knew just from seeing it that it was something completely different. We were all very excited,” said Marsicano.

“After examining the skull,  the structure of the front of the skull caught my attention. It  was the only clearly visible part at that time, and it showed very unusually interlocking large fangs, creating a unique bite for early tetrapods.”

Worlds apart, worlds together

Namibia of the present stands just north of South Africa. Around 300 million years ago, it was even further south, approximately on par with modern-day northern tips of Antarctica.

The world was gradually coming out of an ice age. As swamps near the equator were drying up and turning into forests, the swampy ecosystem near the poles managed to survive, potentially amidst patches of ice and glaciers.

Creatures before Gaiasia jennyae

At such times of significant climatic transformation, animals were adapting to new forms of existence.

Stem tetrapods, which are early four-legged vertebrates, started to diverge into lineages that would eventually evolve into mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.

Meanwhile, in regions like what is now Namibia, ancient forms persisted. Holding on to their lineage, creatures like Gaiasia jennyae turned out to be a surprise.

Somehow tied to organisms believed to have gone extinct about 40 million years prior, Gaiasia jennyae‘s survival and dominance in its ecosystem as a primary predator were astonishing.

Cracking the Permian period code

Gaiasia jennyae is more than just a prehistoric creature – it’s a key to unlocking the mysteries of the Permian period, enabling paleontologists to understand how the world evolved.

It suggests that the dynamics at the Equator differed significantly from those in the far south. This revelation is crucial because it may provide answers about the origins of various animal groups.

The discovery of this ancient predator suggests the existence of a thriving ecosystem, capable of nurturing such large predators.

“The more we look, we might find more answers about these major animal groups that we care about, like the ancestors of mammals and modern reptiles.” concludes Pardo.

Who knows what other secrets of evolution lie buried, awaiting their own time in the sun?

The quest for knowledge is far from over, and each new discovery brings us closer to understanding our world’s wondrous past.

The study is published in the journal Nature.


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