Before dinosaurs ruled the Earth, our planet was dominated by a giant amphibian species much resembling modern-day crocodiles or salamanders. Over 200 million years ago, the “super salamander”, as scientist dubbed it, was one of the most dangerous predators on Earth, inhabiting the tropical regions of the Pangaea supercontinent.
A scientist team unearthed several fossils in southern Portugal, on the site of a prehistoric lake. The bones led them to believe that the newly discovered species was over 2 meters long and weighted up to 100 kilograms. About 220-230 million years ago, the super-salamander was probably near the top of the food chain.
Leading scientist Dr. Steve Brusatte, from Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences, described the amphibian species as “something out of a bad monster movie. It was as long as a small car and had hundreds of sharp teeth in its big flat head, which kind of looks like a toilet seat when the jaws snap shut.”
The predator got the scientific name Metoposaurus algarvensis, as a tribute to the Algarve region in Portugal where its fossils were first discovered. The “saur” particle from its name, meaning “lizard” in Greek, can be a little misleading, since the ancient salamander had more in common with amphibians than with crocodiles or dinosaurs.
The M. algarvensis was probably the largest member of the group of amphibians known as “metoposaurs”, and during the late Triassic period dominated river and lake regions. Although it mostly fed on fish, researchers believe early dinosaur species had trouble getting close to water areas because of the super-salamander. “Our earliest ancestors and the earliest dinosaurs would have had to deal with these guys in their formative years,” said Dr. Brusatte.
The primitive species is the ancestor of modern amphibians – such as frogs – but scientists believe it bore a close resemblance to salamanders. It was the first member of the metoposaurs discovered in the Iberian Peninsula, leading researchers to remap the area they previously thought the amphibians actually lived in.
Similar fossils were uncovered in modern day North America, Africa and Europe, and the recent higher latitude discovery suggests that the climate was highly unpredictable at the time, and most likely marked by long periods of drought.
The super-salamander looked like “an alien from another planet”
The Metoposaurus are part of a larger amphibian group, called temnospondyls. Some of its members, such as Prionosuchus, were even larger that the super-salamander, reaching up to ten meters in length. What stirred scientist curiosity was not the size of the M. algarvensis, as Dr. Brusatte explained, but rather the fact that it was a weird-looking animal. “It may as well be an alien from another planet,” the lead researcher thinks.
Most of these alien-like amphibians became extinct in the late Triassic period, when they were wiped out during thousands of years of savage volcanic eruptions. The giant amphibian mass extinction, occurred some 201 million years ago, is not to be confused with the event that led to the disappearance of dinosaurs, as it happened a long time before that. According to the research team, the eruptions were more like huge fissures in the earth, which constantly sprayed lava over the course of a few millennia.
The catastrophic event brought the Triassic era to an end, as the supercontinent of Pangaea began breaking apart. Only after this the dinosaurs began their 150 million years dominance over the Earth. “In a way it was the death of these things that allowed the dinosaurs and mammals to take over,” Dr. Brusatte acknowledged.
Scientists believe the super-salamander never wandered too far off lakes and rivers, as its frail skeleton could not support its huge weight for very long, and like all other amphibian species it needed water to breathe.
Dr. Steve Brusatte declared himself pleased over the large press coverage “wacky creature” discoveries tend to get, and explained that usually it is the weird species that also present more scientific promise, not just media attention. They normally tell very interesting stories, helping the science community better understand how life evolved.
Image Source: The Conversation
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