A complete skull of a terrifying predator that ruled South America 40million years before the dinosaurs has been discovered. Scientists say that the “gnarly-looking” beast, called Pampaphoneus biccai, was the biggest and “most bloodthirsty” meat eater of its time – and would have triggered “sheer dread” in anything that crossed its path.
An international research team made the “astounding” discovery of the 265million-year-old and “exquisitely preserved” fossil of the predator in the rural area of São Gabriel in Brazil. It includes a complete skull and some skeletal bones, including ribs and arm bones.
Pampaphoneus lived just before the largest extinction event in the history of Earth, which eliminated 86% of all animal species worldwide. It was one of the dinocephalians – one of the major groups of large terrestrial animals that thrived on land. They were medium to large-sized creatures with both carnivore and herbivore species.
Scientists say dinocephalians had thick cranial bones, which led to the group’s name which translates to “terrible head” in Greek. While well-known in South Africa and Russia, the animals were rare in other parts of the world. Pampaphoneus biccai is the only known species in Brazil.
Study lead author Mateus Costa Santos, of the Federal University of Pampa (UNIPAMPA), said: “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.”
Palaeontologists collected the fossil over one month of fieldwork. Due to the pandemic, it took an additional three years for the fossil to be cleaned and thoroughly studied.
Co-author Professor Stephanie Pierce, of Harvard University in the US, 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 specimen is only the second Pampaphoneus skull ever discovered from South America. It is also bigger than the first and provides “unprecedented” information about its morphology due to the exceptional preservation of its bones.
Senior author Professor Felipe Pinheiro, of UNIPAMPA, 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.”
He said that, although Pampaphoneus’ skull is the largest ever found intact at almost 40cm (15.7ins), research suggests a previously unidentified fossil represents a potential third individual that was up to twice as big as the new find. Researchers estimate that the largest Pampaphoneus individuals could reach nearly 3m (9.8ft) in length and weigh around 400kg (882lbs).
The findings, published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, suggest they were “skilled” predators capable of feeding on small to medium-sized animals. In the same area where the fossil was found, some of its potential prey have also been identified, including the small dicynodont Rastodon and the giant amphibian Konzhukovia.