Fossil discovery of a saber-toothed creature connects northern and southern hemisphere faunas

New top predator in town (at least, temporarily).

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Catastrophic ecosystem disruption in the late Permian period resulted in the greatest biodiversity loss in Earth’s history, the Permian-Triassic mass extinction (PTME). The fossil record from that period reveals drama and upheaval as species struggled to establish themselves in their changing environment. A tiger-sized, saber-toothed creature named Inostrancevia is one example of this unstable species.

According to a new fossil discovery, Inostrancevia migrated 7,000 miles across the supercontinent Pangaea, filling a gap in a faraway ecosystem that had lost its top predators before becoming extinct.

Before this discovery, this saber-toothed creature had only ever been found in Russia. However, Christian Kammerer, at the Field Museum in Chicago, discovered the remains of two sizable predatory species that weren’t often found in the area while studying the fossil record of South Africa’s Karoo Basin.

According to Pia Viglietti, a research scientist at the Field Museum in Chicago, the fossils themselves were highly unexpected. It is still being determined how they got to South Africa from Russia or how long it took them to cross Pangaea. But the fossils’ uniqueness wasn’t solely due to their remote location.

The arrival of Inostrancevia from 7,000 miles away and its subsequent extinction indicates that these top predators were “canaries in the coal mine” for the larger extinction event.

The ancient animal had the appearance of a “top predator.” Inostrancevia was a gorgonopsian, a group of proto-mammals that included the first saber-toothed predators on the planet. Although it possessed skin resembling an elephant or a rhino, it was approximately the size of a tiger. It belonged to the same family of animals as current mammals despite having a somewhat reptilian appearance.

Viglietti said, “When we reviewed the ranges and ages of the other top predators normally found in the area, the ridgeline gorgonopsians, with these Inostrancevia fossils, we found something quite exciting. The local carnivores went extinct quite a bit before even the major extinction that we see in the Karoo– by the time the extinction begins in other animals, they’re gone.”

Co-author Jennifer Botha, director of GENUS Centre of Excellence in Palaeosciences and professor at the Evolutionary Studies Institute, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, said, “This shows that the South African Karoo Basin continues to produce critical data for understanding the most catastrophic mass extinction in Earth’s history.”

Christian Kammerer, the study’s first author and a research curator of paleontology at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and research associate at the Field Museum, said, “We have shown that the shift in which groups of animals occupied apex predator roles occurred four times over less than two million years around the Permian-Triassic mass extinction, which is unprecedented in the history of life on land. This underlines this crisis’s extreme, with even fundamental roles in ecosystems in extreme flux.”

The vulnerability of these top predators matches what we see today. “Apex predators in modern environments tend to show high extinction risk and tend to be among the first species that are locally extirpated due to human-mediated activities such as hunting or habitat destruction,” says Kammerer. “Think about wolves in Europe or tigers in Asia, species which tend to be slow to reproduce and grow and require large geographic areas to roam and hunt prey, which is now absent from most of their historical ranges. We should expect that ancient apex predators would have had similar vulnerabilities and be among the species that first go extinct during mass extinction events.”

“In addition to shedding new light on the extinction event that helped lead to the rise of the dinosaurs. The study is important for what it can teach us about the ecological disasters the planet is currently experiencing.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Christian F. Kammerer, Rapid turnover of top predators in African terrestrial faunas around the Permian-Triassic mass extinction, Current Biology (2023). DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2023.04.007
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