Dinosaurs are famous as the largest, most ferocious predators in the history of the world. But 40 million years before dinosaurs ruled, Pampaphoneus biccai ruled South America as the largest and most bloodthirsty meat eater of its time.
In a new study published in the Zoological Journal, an international team of researchers made the surprising discovery of Pampaphoneus biccai, a 265 million year old, perfectly preserved fossil species found in the rural region of São Gabriel, Brazil.
The striking fossil contains a complete skull, as well as some skeletal bones such as ribs and arm bones. Pampaphoneus, belonging to an early therapsid lineage called Dinocephalians, lived just before the greatest extinction event in Earth’s history, which wiped out 86% of all animal species worldwide.
Before their extinction, dinocephalians were one of the largest groups of land-dwelling animals. They were medium to large sized creatures with both carnivorous and herbivorous representatives. Dinocephalians had thick skull bones and science gave them the name, which means “terrible head” in Greek. Although well known in South Africa and Russia, these animals are rare in other parts of the world. Pampaphoneus biccai is the only known species in Brazil.
“The fossil was found in middle Permian rocks, in an area where bones are not so common, but always hold pleasant surprises. 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.” said lead author Mateus A. Costa Santos, a graduate student in the Paleontology Laboratory at the Federal University of Pampa (UNIPAMPA).
Paleontologists from UNIPAMPA and Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS) collected the fossil over one month of daily, backbreaking fieldwork. Due to the pandemic, it took three years to clean and thoroughly examine the fossil. Co-author Professor Stephanie E. Pierce, in the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, participated in the study of the animal as part of her current work with senior author and head of lab Prof Felipe Pinheiro, UNIPAMPA, on the Permo-Triassic fossil record of Brazil.
Pierce said “This animal was a gnarly-looking beast, and it must have evoked sheer dread in anything that crossed its path. Its discovery is key to providing a glimpse into the community structure of terrestrial ecosystems just prior to the biggest mass extinction of all time. A spectacular find that demonstrates the global importance of Brazil’s fossil record.”
The new discovery is the second Pampaphoneus biccai skull ever discovered in South America. It is also larger than the first and provides unprecedented insights into its morphology due to the exceptional preservation of its bones.
Pinheiro said “Pampaphoneus played the same ecological role as modern big cats. It was the largest terrestrial predator we know of from the Permian in South America. The animal had large, sharp canine teeth adapted for capturing prey. Its dentition and cranial architecture suggest that its bite was strong enough to chew bones, much like modern day hyenas.”
At almost 40 cm, Pampaphoneus’ skull is the largest skull ever found intact. But research shows that a previously unidentified fossil represents a potential third individual that is twice as large as the new find. Although the second fossil is known only from a jaw fragment, it has enough features to be identified as Pampaphoneus.
Researchers estimate that the largest Pampaphoneus individuals could reach about three meters in length and weigh about 400 kg. It was a skilled hunter, preying on small and medium-sized animals. Some of its potential prey, such as the small dicynodont Rastodon and the giant amphibian Konzhukovia, have also been identified in the area where the fossil was found.
Cover photo: Artistic reconstruction of Pampaphoneus biccai. Márcio Castro