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The 880-Pound Killer That Terrorized the Age Before the Dinosaurs

Paleontologists have uncovered a new fossil in South America that belongs to a fearsome predator from the long-gone Permian Period.

By Matt Hrodey
Sep 20, 2023 4:00 PM
Tetrapod predator
The 10-foot-long tetrapod predator. (Credit: Márcio Castro)


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A land predator that lived during the ill-fated Permian Period functioned like a “big cat,” such as a tiger or lion, that dominated its local food chain, according to the scientists behind a new fossil find. That said, this 10-foot-long, 880-pound force probably looked nothing like a feline – it likely resembled a large amphibian.

During the Permian Period and before the emergence of the dinosaurs, such four-legged “tetrapods” ruled the land. Their preeminence ended, however, with the worst extinction event in world history, one that dwarfs even the extinction of the dinosaurs.

The “Great Dying” – brought about by changes in the climate – ended the period and destroyed 86 percent of animal species on the planet.

Read More: The Late Permian Mass Extinction Explained

Where Did Scientists Find the New Fossil?

Researchers recovered the new Pampaphoneus biccai fossil from a rural area near São Gabriel in southern Brazil, making it the second such beast recovered from the country. The team spanned researchers from the Federal University of Pampa (UNIPAMPA) and the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, as well as Harvard University.

Collecting the fossil from Permian rock required “over one month of daily, backbreaking fieldwork,” a statement notes. Cleaning and classifying the fossil took another three years, the researchers say, due to COVID-19.

The team classified the skull and a few other bones as a dinocephalian, a group of large animals that included both carnivorous and herbivorous members.

But P. biccai, without a doubt, was a meat-eater.

A Gnarly-Looking Beast

“Pampaphoneus played the same ecological role as modern big cats,” said Felipe Pinheiro, a professor at UNIPAMPA. “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.”

P. biccai may have dined on the pig-like dicynodont Rastodon, the researchers say, as well as the larger, crocodile-like amphibian Konzhukovia.

“This animal was a gnarly-looking beast, and it must have evoked sheer dread in anything that crossed its path,” said Stephanie Pierce, a Harvard professor who participated in the study, in a statement.

Life During the Permian Period

During the Permian Period, which spanned from 299 million to 251 million years ago, a single mega-continent, Pangea, dominated one side of the globe while a mega-ocean, Panthalassa, dominated the other.

Four-legged “tetrapods,” such as P. biccai, roamed the land, alongside the first conifer trees. Mammal-like animals didn’t exist yet – they would come later, during the age of the dinosaurs.

Read More: The Rise of the Tetrapods: How Our Early Ancestors Left Water to Walk on Land

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