Paleontologists Discover ‘Monstrous’ Sabre-Toothed Fossils from Russia: The Early Evolution of Mammals

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Paleontologists have analyzed two fossils that have been found in Russia, discovering two new species of predatory creatures that had giant sabre teeth.

These animals are prehistoric, belonging to a group called therapsids or “protomammals.” They lived 250 million years ago, long before the first dinosaurs.

The protomammals are the ancestors of modern mammals, but they were wiped almost entirely at the end of the Permian era when the age of dinosaurs started.

Until now, fossils like these have only been found in Africa, so finding them in Russia is the first discovery of its kind, adding a new piece to the puzzle of the mammals’ family tree.

Gorynychus and Nochnitsa – the Ancient Monsters in Russian Folklore

Having a monstrous” appearance, the species were called after creatures from Russian folklore. One of them has been named after Zmey Gorynych – a three-headed dragon: Gorynychus, and the second one has been named after a night hag, an evil spirit of the night: Nochnitsa.

Gorynychus had the size of a wolf a belongs to a subgroup of protomammals – the therocephalians (“beast heads”), and the Nochnitsa was a small animal, a gorgonopsian (a group named after a Greek mythological monster).

The fossils were discovered on a site close to the town of Kotelnich in western Russia after Vyatka Paleontological Museum sent expeditions. Christian Kammerer (North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences) said that Kotelnich is a good site where you can find “therapsid fossils – not only because they are amazingly complete and well-preserved there, but also because they provide an all-too-rare window into mammal ancestry in the Northern Hemisphere during the Permian.”

Before gorgonopsians went extinct in the mid-Permian era, they were giant predators. Therocephalians were smaller, but the roles reversed later. Dr. Kammerer explains that “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.”

Looking at the findings in the Russian site, they could see that Gorynychus was a large predator.

A study with the description of the fossils was published in the journal PeerJ.