Fossilized saber-tooth predators found in Russian Federation are named after monsters

Saber-tooth Illustration

Scientists led by the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences have described two new species of saber-toothed prehistoric predators. The remains of these long extinct species gave clues to the researchers involved in the study of the initial origination of mammals on the Earth.

Living mammals are descended from a group of animals called therapsids, a diverse assemblage of "protomammals" that dominated terrestrial ecosystems in the Permian Period (~299-252 million years ago), millions of years before the earliest dinosaurs. The group comprised burrowing insectivores, tusked herbivores and saber-toothed predators. So, our current understanding of Permian therapsids is largely based on the South African fossil record.

During their recent expeditions, researchers from Vyatka Paleontological Museum have collected many well-preserved Permian fossils near the town of Kotelnich along the Vyatka River in European Russia.

The first of the two creatures, Gorynychus masyutinae, was a carnivorous creature the size of a wolf, which would probably be the largest predator in its ecosystem. The second, Nochnitsa geminidens, meanwhile, was a smaller, long-snouted carnivore with needle-like teeth. For this reason, both new species were named after monsters found in Russian folklore. The beast head, Gorynychus, is named after Zmey Gorynych, a three-headed dragon, while the gorgon face, Nochnitsa, gets its name from an evil nocturnal spirit.

The mid-Permian mass extinction, which came about eight million years before the well-known and devastating end-Permian mass extinction, played a major role in driving protomammal evolution.

In typical late Permian ecosystems, the top predators were giant, tiger-sized, sabre-toothed gorgonopsians and therocephalians were generally small insectivores.

During the mid-Permian, an extinction occurred according to scientists, but not much is known about that and about how did the animals such as protomammals evolve during and after the event.

During the mid-Permian, the apex predators were all therocephalians, just like Gorynychus, whereas gorgonopsians were smaller carnivores, similar to Nochnitsa.

"In between these extinctions, there was a complete flip-flop in what roles these carnivores were playing in their ecosystems - as if bears suddenly became weasel-sized and weasels became bear-sized in their place", Christian Kammerer, paleontologist at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, said in a news release.

The researchers are hoping that the newfound saber tooth fossils - which represent the first-ever evidence that this turnover among ancient predators was not confined to South Africa - could shed some light into the matter and help solve this Permian puzzle. As such, remains of the proto-mammals found in other parts of the world offer invaluable perspective, helping scientists determine whether shifts in the therapsid fossil record were the result of regional or global phenomena.

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