Jan. 16, 2012 -- Brazil 260 million years ago was the stomping ground of the recently discovered Pampaphoneus biccai, aka the "Pampas Killer," according to new research.
This formidable predator was at the top of the food chain and looked like a creature from a science fiction novel. Project leader Juan Carlos Cisneros told Discovery News that gazing at this animal "would be like looking at a mixture between a tiger and a Komodo dragon, if you can imagine that."
The new species is described in the latest Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Razor-Toothed Meat-Eater Was Mammal Relative
Toothy, Big and Ready to Hunt
Pampas Killer was a dinocephalian therapsid, meaning that it was a mammal-like reptile, said Cisneros, a paleontologist at the Centro de Ciências da Natureza, Universidade Federal do Piauí. It measured close to 10 feet long and weighed more than a lion.
Four long canine teeth -- two upper and two lower -- were hooked shape, allowing it to tightly hold prey. Humans were not around during this animal's lifetime, thank goodness, because we might have been a tasty snack. Instead, this hunter often killed pareiasaurs, which were big, armored reptiles, and the anomodont Tiarajudens.
"We are very excited about this find because, for many years, the land mammals that lived during the Permian period in South America were represented only by herbivores," Cisneros said. "Of course, where you have herbivores you also have predators, but now there is definite proof."
Unearthed in Southern Brazil
Cisneros and his team excavated the remains of the Pampas Killer on a farm in the pampas region of Rio Grande do Sul in southern Brazil. The landlord of the farm where the fossil site is located is Jose Bicca, hence "biccai" in the scientific name for the new predator.
The word "pampas" refers to the flatlands of southern Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina. This fossil site was located through the analysis of satellite images from Google Earth.
A Sturdy Skull
The find consists of a complete skull that measures well over a foot in length. As this image reveals, the bones of Pampas Killer's skull were covered by ridges, like those in crocodile skulls. But this animal was definitely not an aquatic reptile, like a modern crocodile. Scientists are now learning that many prehistoric animals were neither clearly reptilian nor fully mammalian. They were somewhere in between.
Jörg Fröbisch of the Field Museum recently discovered yet another Paleozoic animal, Suminia getmanovi, which confused scientists about its status between reptile and mammal. Fröbisch told Discovery News that some "mammal-like reptiles" were actually more mammal than reptile.
In terms of the Pampas Killer, it actually belonged to an ancient group of vertebrates that is distantly related to mammals. During its own lifetime, the Brazilian meat-eater was a close relative to carnivore dinocephalians found in the Permian of Russia and in South Africa.
Blast from the Permian Past
Pampas Killer reveals that terrestrial vertebrates and their relatives were able to disperse easily from Gondwana (south Pangaea) to Laurasia (north Pangaea) and vice-versa. Such species have been found in Russia and South Africa, so these basic types of animals existed far and wide back in the prehistoric day. Pampas Killer sheds important light on that time.
"Overall, the Permian period is not so well studied around the world," Cisneros said. "This time frame deserves more attention from us, as it was a very rich moment in the life of our planet that ended by the largest, and not fully explained, mass extinction."
PHOTOS: Living Fossils: Animals From Another Time