Ancient Hyper-carnivore Species Survived For 35 Million Years
December 7, 2011

Ancient Hyper-carnivore Species Survived For 35 Million Years

An ancient predator species with agile bodies, saw-like teeth and an insatiable appetite for meat survived a major extinction at a time when distant relatives of mammals ruled the Earth, according to new research by scientists at Cape Breton University and the University of Toronto Mississauga.

In a study published in Naturwissenschaften — The Science of Nature, Professors Sean Modesto and Robert Reisz provided evidence that varanopids survived for more than 35 million years, and co-existed with more advanced animals.

Modesto and colleagues conducted a detailed examination of the partial skull and jaw of the youngest known primitive mammal-like animal, which they believe lived over 260 million years ago in the Permian Period.   The fossils came from rocks forming the Pristerognathus Assemblage Zone of the Beaufort Group in South Africa.

“These animals were the most agile predators of their time, sleek-looking when compared to their contemporaries,” said Reisz.

“They seem to have survived a major change in the terrestrial fauna that occurred during the Middle Permian, a poorly understood extinction event in the history of life on land.”

Despite their appearance, varanopids were, in fact, a relative of mammals.

“These ancient animals really looked like modern goannas or monitor lizards, but are actually more closely related to mammals,” Modesto said.

The fossil revealed teeth that are strongly flattened, curved towards the throat and with finely serrated cutting edges typical of hypercarnivores - animals with a diet that consists of more than 70 percent meat.

Modesto and his team concluded that varanopids had a longer co-existence with animals that eventually evolved into mammals than previously believed.  They suggest that the dental and skeletal design of varanopids, reminiscent of the Komodo dragon of today, may have contributed to their long survival and their success.

A detailed description of a fossil is published in the December issue of Naturwissenschaften — The Science of Nature.


Image Caption: Professors from University of Toronto Mississauga and Cape Breton University studied the fossil of an ancient group of predators known as varanopids, making a series of discoveries. Photo by Diane Scott, Department of Biology, University of Toronto Mississauga.


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