A new species of gigantic, toothy amphibians from about 220 million years ago found in a mass grave.
It was probably after an old lake dried up which killed hundreds of these creatures, leaving their bones in a big mess, now being excavated in southern Portugal. These beasts are related to modern day salamanders, but probably lived more like crocodiles, using their large jaws to snap-up fish and violently fighting off rivals. This was reported in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
Dr. Steve Brusatte from the University of Edinburgh is the paleontologist who led the research. He’s stated, “It’s basically a salamander that’s the size of a car. It’s one of those creatures from the distant past that looks like an alien – but it actually has quite a lot of relevance. These kind of big amphibians were the ancestral stock that modern frogs, salamanders and newts came from.”
Unlike the small, cute amphibians that we know of today, Metoposaurus algarvensis was at the top of the food chain back then. This was because it, “had hundreds of sharp teeth in its big flat head, which kind of looks like a toilet seat when the jaws snap shut,” said Dr. Brusatte.
Way back in the Triassic period, dinosaurs and mammals were still the new kids on the block, carving out niches among these ‘big dogs’. Some related species could get even bigger, up to 10 meters long! The gigantic salamanders dominated Pangaea, Earth’s ancient super continent, which during these guys’ lives was only just starting to make the split which now makes up today’s land.
Dr. Brusatte explained further, “These big amphibians were some of the main predators and denizens of that world. So our earliest ancestors and the earliest dinosaurs would have had to deal with these guys in their formative years.”
Their large jaws were mostly used on fish when they got the munchies. Like most amphibians, they couldn’t get very far away from the water, but it is easy to imagine them posing a major threat to any of the early mammals of dinosaurs that would invade their space.
“Like people down in Louisiana or Florida today: ‘Stay away from the water or the crocs might get you!’ I think that’s what it would have been like with the earliest dinosaurs.”
Even with their dominance, these creatures and the other related species of mega amphibians all died out by the late Triassic period, as the world was forever changed by thousands of years of savage-like volcanic eruptions.
“In a way it was the death of these things that allowed the dinosaurs and mammals to take over,” Dr Brusatte said.
In the turbulent climate, small scale exterminations, such as the one that took place in this ancient Portuguese lake bed were commonplace. A salamander the size of a car, wouldn’t be able to go off looking for a new home once it’s surrounding waters all dried up.
The changing environment which caused these sorts of habitat extinctions to take place makes mass graves of ‘monstrous amphibians’ a known feature of the Triassic. And yet, we never got to see a Triassic Park!
He and his colleagues have only explored a small portion of the area while digging in the Algarve. Fossilized bones have been found from at least ten individual creatures, and they expect to find hundreds more.
“That’s a pretty neat thing, because it means we have a lot of fossils that can really tell us about how big this guy was, about what its biology was like, about the world that it inhabited.”