During the ‘Great Dying,’ This Saber-Toothed Predator Reigned

This ancestor of mammals briefly thrived amid a massive extinction event, hinting at how carnivores may respond to climate change today

saber-toothed Inostrancevia
An illustration of the giant gorgonopsian Inostrancevia scaring off the much smaller African species Cyonosaurus Matt Celeskey

Around 250 million years ago, before the dinosaurs evolved, the Earth experienced a mass extinction so devastating it destroyed nearly all life on our planet. Over the course of a million years, massive supervolcanic eruptions triggered severe climate change that wiped out up to 96 percent of all marine species and around 70 percent of terrestrial reptiles, amphibians, insects and plants. 

But as many species struggled to survive, a new saber-toothed creature emerged at the top of the food chain. Called Inostrancevia africana, it lived and thrived for a brief time at the end of this tumultuous period before also going extinct.

In a study published Monday in Current Biology, scientists describe how animals in the genus Inostrancevia migrated 7,000 miles across Pangea to fill the role of top carnivore in an ecosystem where the main predators had died out. Scientists usually expect apex predators to die off first in extinction events, so studying the rise and fall of creatures like Inostrancevia could shed light on how carivores might fare under climate change today. 

Before this extinction at the end of the Permian Period—now known as the “Great Dying”—creatures called synapsids, the precursors to mammals, dominated the Earth. 

“Permian synapsids included our own ancestors, and not nearly enough people know about this,” Christian Kammerer, a research curator and paleontologist at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and an author of the paper, tells Jeanne Timmons of the New York Times. These synapsids “are more closely related to us than any dinosaur or other reptile.”

Inostrancevia was a type of synapsid called a gorgonopsian—a group of saber-toothed beasts. It was about the size of a tiger but vaguely reptilian in appearance, with leathery skin like a rhinoceros.

Previously, researchers had only found Inostrancevia fossils in Russia, where they were thought to be endemic. But when Kammerer was examining the fossil record of South Africa’s Karoo Basin, he discovered that two specimens unearthed more than ten years ago were distinct from other predators in the area. These fossils resembled the I. alexandri specimens found thousands of miles away in Russia. 

“The fossils themselves were quite unexpected,” Pia Viglietti, a research scientist at the Field Museum in Chicago and a co-author of the new study, says in a statement. The research team realized that these specimens belonged to an entirely new species and named it Inostrancevia africana. 

Juan Carlos Cisneros, a paleontologist at the Federal University of Piauí in Brazil who was not involved in the research, tells the Times that discovering similar species in both Russia and South Africa was “unexpected and exciting.” 

“Apparently, what was bad luck for southern predators… was opportunity for the ones from the north,” he tells the publication. 

But the researchers made another surprising discovery after examining the ranges and ages of the other top predators found in the region, called rubidgeine gorgonopsians: These apex predators had disappeared even before the main extinction event occurred in the Karoo Basin. 

“We did not have a good understanding of when these large predators appeared and went extinct in the African record,” Viglietti tells Popular Science’s Laura Baisas. “This was an important piece in the puzzle to answer, because large-bodied predators tend to be at high levels of extinction risk. So, knowing when they went extinct is important for understanding the Great Dying.”

But it could also be useful for understanding our current crisis, Viglietti says in the statement. The Great Dying is one of the best examples for the extinctions Earth is facing with the human-caused climate emergency. 

This time around, “I guess the only difference is we know what to do and how to stop it from happening,” she says in the statement.

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