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The Great Dying: New Fossil Discovery Sheds Light on Prehistoric Predator’s Migration and Lessons for Today’s Ecological Crises

Approximately 252 million years ago, Earth experienced a mass extinction so severe that it is known as “the Great Dying.” The mass extinction was triggered by massive volcanic eruptions that caused catastrophic climate change, leading to the extinction of 90% of all species, and eventually setting the stage for the era of the dinosaurs. The extinction event took place over the course of up to a million years at the end of the Permian period, during which the fossil record shows drama and upheaval as species fought to get a foothold in their changing environments.[0] One animal that exemplifies this instability was a tiger-sized, saber-toothed creature called Inostrancevia.[1] A new fossil discovery suggests that Inostrancevia migrated 7,000 miles across the supercontinent Pangaea, filling a gap in a faraway ecosystem that had lost its top predators, before going extinct itself.[2]

For the past 100 years, scientists believed that Inostrancevia lived only in the Northern Hemisphere, and a different group of mammalian ancestor predators lived in the Southern Hemisphere.[3] However, during the examination of South Africa’s Karoo Basin fossil record, a team of researchers led by co-author Jennifer Botha of the GENUS Centre of Excellence in Palaeosciences and the University of the Witwatersrand, unearthed two giant saber-toothed predators that were 9 to 13 feet long in rocks that date back between 252 and 255 million years.[4] Until the recent discovery, Inostrancevia had been found only in Russia, but being far from home was just one element of what made the fossils special.[5]

The vulnerability of top predators matches what we see today.[1] “Apex predators in modern environments tend to show high extinction risk and tend to be among the first species that are locally extirpated due to human-mediated activities such as hunting or habitat destruction,” says Christian Kammerer, the study's first author and a research curator of paleontology at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and research associate at the Field Museum. Top predators are some of the most vulnerable when it comes to extinction risk because they are slower to reproduce and grow and require large areas for roaming and hunting, like wolves in Europe and tigers in Asia.

The study not only throws new light on the extinction event that paved the way for the rise of dinosaurs, but also imparts valuable lessons about the ecological crises that our planet currently faces. In addition to shedding new light on the extinction event that helped lead to the rise of dinosaurs, the study is important for what it can teach us about the ecological disasters the planet is currently experiencing.

The prehistoric creature looked the part of a top predator.[1] “Inostrancevia was a gorgonopsian, a group of proto-mammals that included the first saber-toothed predators on the planet,” says Pia Viglietti, a research scientist at the Field Museum in Chicago and a co-author of the new study in Current Biology.[5] It was about the size of a tiger and likely had skin like an elephant or a rhino.[4] While vaguely reptilian in appearance, it was part of the group of animals that includes modern mammals.[1]

Dr. Kammerer, the first author of the new study, has found that over a span of approximately two million years, during the Permian-Triassic mass extinction era, there were four shifts in the dominant apex predator species. He described these changes as “unprecedented in the history of life on land.” The fossil record shows that around 251.9 million years ago, the boundary line between the Permian era and the Triassic era, four different animal groups each took their turns serving as top predators, going extinct and then being replaced.

The revolutionary research not just uncovers fascinating facets of ancient existence but also acts as a crucial prompt to conserve our ecosystems and prevent the imminent ecological catastrophes endangering our world at present.

0. “Sabre-toothed predator migrated 11,000km amid mass extinction 252 million years ago” The National, 22 May. 2023, https://www.thenationalnews.com/world/2023/05/22/sabre-toothed-predator-migrated-11000km-amid-mass-extinction-252-million-years-ago

1. “Fossils of a saber-toothed top predator reveal a scramble for dominance leading up to ‘the Great Dying'” Phys.org, 22 May. 2023, https://phys.org/news/2023-05-fossils-saber-toothed-predator-reveal-scramble.html

2. “The great dying's migratory predator: Inostrancevia's 7000-Mile journey across Pangaea” Interesting Engineering, 22 May. 2023, https://interestingengineering.com/science/ancient-saber-toothed-predator-inostrancevia-migrated-7000-miles

3. “KAKE” KAKE, 7 May. 2023, https://www.kake.com/story/48948243/ancient-saber-toothed-creature-lived-during-the-great-dying

4. “This tiger-sized, saber-toothed, rhino-skinned predator thrived before the ‘Great Dying’” Popular Science, 22 May. 2023, https://www.popsci.com/science/great-dying-nostrancevia/

5. “Saber-toothed predator was king prior to the Great Dying” Earth.com, 22 May. 2023, https://www.earth.com/news/saber-toothed-predator-was-king-prior-to-the-great-dying/

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