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Long before dinosaurs, Pampaphoneus biccai was the fiercest predator on Earth

The narrative of our planet’s history is filled with tales of massive, awe-inspiring creatures, often with the dinosaurs as the headlining act. Yet, a newly unveiled chapter in this ever-evolving story takes us 40 million years before these famous reptilian giants roamed the Earth, to the era of Pampaphoneus biccai – a creature that once laid claim to the title of the largest and most ferocious predator in South America.

Recent revelations in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society have introduced the world to an extraordinary 265-million-year-old fossil specimen of Pampaphoneus biccai. The fossil is exquisitely preserved and was uncovered in the pastoral landscapes of São Gabriel in Southern Brazil.

The significance of this finding cannot be overstated. This is especially true since the remains include an intact skull as well as parts of its skeleton, like ribs and arm bones.

When dinocephalians ruled the Earth

Tracing the lineage of Pampaphoneus leads to the dinocephalians, an early branch of therapsids that precede the catastrophic extinction event wiping out a staggering 86% of global animal species. These creatures were aptly named after the Greek words for “terrible head” due to their dense cranial bones. They were the predominant large land-dwellers of their time, showcasing a diverse range including both carnivores and herbivores.

Mateus A. Costa Santos was the study’s lead author and a graduate student at the Paleontology Laboratory at the Federal University of Pampa (UNIPAMPA). For context, he explains, “The fossil was found in middle Permian rocks, in an area where bones are not so common, but always hold pleasant surprises.”

He elaborates on the significance, noting, “Finding a new Pampaphoneus skull after so long was extremely important for increasing our knowledge about the animal, which was previously difficult to differentiate from its Russian relatives.”

How Pampaphoneus biccai was found

A colossal effort went into unearthing this fossil. For a month, paleontologists from UNIPAMPA and Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS) diligently worked, day in and day out. However, challenges posed by the global pandemic meant an additional three-year delay before the specimen could be cleaned, studied, and its mysteries unveiled.

Co-author Professor Stephanie E. Pierce of Harvard offered her insights on the specimen. He remarked, “This animal was a gnarly-looking beast, and it must have evoked sheer dread in anything that crossed its path.” Pierce emphasizes the global implications of the discovery. He noted its ability to shed light on “the community structure of terrestrial ecosystems just prior to the biggest mass extinction of all time.”

The Pampaphoneus biccai specimen has elevated Brazil’s significance in the world of paleontology. Interestingly, this isn’t the first time a Pampaphoneus skull has been discovered in South America. It is, however, certainly the most comprehensive find yet. Its size, larger than its predecessor, coupled with the impeccable preservation of its bones, offers unprecedented data about its morphology.

Pampaphoneus was similar to modern big cats

Equating the creature’s ecological significance to that of today’s big cats, Professor Felipe Pinheiro from UNIPAMPA describes, “Pampaphoneus played the same ecological role as modern big cats.” He goes on to illustrate the creature’s might. He observed that, “Its dentition and cranial architecture suggest that its bite was strong enough to chew bones, much like modern-day hyenas.”

Indeed, while the newly discovered skull is a formidable 40cm, there are indications of an even larger individual. This clue was gleaned from a jaw fragment that is believed to belong to Pampaphoneus. If accurate, this would suggest creatures nearly twice the size of the current specimen, potentially reaching lengths of up to three meters and weighing around 400kg.

This apex predator of its time was not alone. Within the same vicinity, remains of potential prey like the small dicynodont Rastodon and the giant amphibian Konzhukovia were identified. This discovery paints a vibrant picture of a bygone ecosystem.

The unfolding narrative of Pampaphoneus biccai, in tandem with other fossil findings in the region, underscores the Pampa’s untapped potential as a treasure trove of paleontological discoveries.

This research endeavor was made possible through funding by many generous institutions. Special thanks goes to CAPES, CNPq, and the Harvard Lemann Brazil Research Fund. The study reaffirms the global significance of Brazil’s rich and diverse fossil record.

More about dinocephalians

Dinocephalians, often overshadowed by the more famous dinosaurs, hold a unique and critical place in our planet’s prehistoric narrative. As mentioned above, derived from Greek words meaning “terrible heads,” dinocephalians were a diverse group of therapsid (mammal-like reptiles) species that once roamed the Earth long before the first dinosaur made its footprint.

Origin and evolution

Dinocephalians first appeared in the middle Permian period, roughly around 270 million years ago. Over time, they diversified into a wide range of forms, leading to both herbivorous and carnivorous species.

Physical characteristics

One of the defining characteristics of dinocephalians was their thick, dense cranial bones, which earned them their unique name. These heavy skulls, especially in males, might have served multiple purposes. They helped with protection, combat with rivals, or even as a display to attract potential mates.

Many dinocephalian species also exhibited sexual dimorphism, where males and females displayed distinct physical differences. While males typically had larger, more robust skulls and bodies, females were comparatively smaller and less robust.

Diet and lifestyle

The diversity in the dinocephalian group was not just in size or skull structure, but also in dietary habits. Some species, like the massive Moschops, were herbivores with strong, pillar-like limbs. This indicates they had a slow-moving lifestyle where they browsed low-lying vegetation. Others, like the carnivorous Titanophoneus, had sharp teeth and strong jaws, suggesting a predatory lifestyle where they hunted smaller animals.

Habitat and distribution

Most dinocephalian fossils come from South Africa and Russia. This suggests these regions were primary habitats for these creatures during the Permian period. These habitats ranged from arid plains to dense forests, supporting the diverse lifestyles of the various dinocephalian species.

Pampaphoneus biccai extinction

Around 260 million years ago, dinocephalians began to decline. After Pampaphoneus biccai, the dinocephalians slowly vanished from the planet.

The exact reasons for their decline remain a subject of debate among paleontologists. However, by the late Permian period, dinocephalians had become extinct. Their extinction paved the way for new groups of therapsids to dominate, eventually leading to the rise of the dinosaurs.

Significance in evolutionary history

Dinocephalians represent a vital evolutionary link between earlier reptilian forms and the more advanced mammal-like reptiles that would follow. Their rise and fall highlight the dynamic nature of life on Earth. Entire groups can evolve, diversify, and eventually go extinct, giving way to newer, more adapted species.

In summary, while they may not be as famous as the mighty Tyrannosaurus or the graceful Diplodocus, dinocephalians played a crucial role in the Earth’s prehistoric ecosystem. Their fossils provide valuable insights into the evolution of life, the changing climates and habitats of the past, and the intricate dance of survival, adaptation, and extinction. The legacy of the “terrible-headed” dinocephalians, therefore, stands as a testament to the ever-changing story of life on our planet.

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