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Hundreds of Car-Sized Fossil Amphibians Found in a Mass Grave

The huge creature is related to modern-day newts, salamanders and frogs

A model of Metoposaurus algarvensis (Marc Boulay, Cossima Productions)
smithsonian.com

A park ranger recently came across an incredibly rare, nearly three-foot long salamander in a river in southern China’s Guangdong Province. It weighed more than 12 pounds. "I couldn’t believe my eyes," Xiao Pan told the Mirror. But the creature—a Chinese giant salamander would have been a cute little thing to Metoposaurus algarvensis, an amphibian that roamed the earth more than 200 million years ago.

"It's basically a salamander that's the size of a car," Steve Brusatte, a palaeontologist at the University of Edinburgh, who is excavating a trove of these creatures from a site in southern Portugal, reports BBC News. "It's one of those creatures from the distant past that looks like an alien - but it actually has quite a lot of relevance," he says. "These kind of big amphibians were the ancestral stock that modern frogs, salamanders and newts came from."

Metoposaurus algarvensis had large flat heads lined with hundreds of sharp teeth, according to a press release. Brusatte and the team have excavated around 13 square feet of the site so far and have uncovered bones from at least 10 individuals. Their findings are described in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. The giant creatures would have made lakes and rivers somewhat terrifying for early dinosaurs in the Triassic. 

Metoposaurus algarvensis skull fossils, Credit: Octavio Mateus, Richard Butler, and Steve Brusatte

Similar animals have been found before, though these specimens are the first in the Iberian peninsula, says Susan Evans, a professor of paleontology at the University College London, according to BBC News. The newly discovered creature could have reached six feet in length, but other prehistoric giant salamanders grew up to 30 feet long. They’ve been found in Germany, Poland, Africa, Indonesia and North America.

Fortunately, for the dinosaurs anyway, the Guardian reports that the amphibian’s dominance would have been limited: 

Though a top predator in its own right, Metoposaurus had small, weak limbs for such a large animal. The relative puniness of its legs meant it could not venture far onto land, and so could easily be stranded if its watery home dried out.

That must have been what happened to the fossils discovered in Spain. Brusatte estimates that hundreds more individuals must be in the to-be-excavated portion of the site.

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