Reports of a mass extinction of “gorgonians” at the end of the Permian period have been greatly exaggerated, according to new research. These strange paleo-beasts were thought to have died out along with most other life on Earth at the time, but scientists have recently discovered that some of these so-called gorgonians survived into the Triassic period. However, they didn’t survive long, making them a “walking dead clade,” the team said.
An analysis of three specimens found in the Karoo Basin in South Africa reveals that this saber-toothed group, known as gorgonopsians, were the dominant predators at the end Permian period, managed to survive the “Great Death”. During this event, which took place around 251.9 million years ago and was also known as the Late Permian Extinction, around 90% of all species disappeared. Gorgonopsians were an exception – but despite their survival, their prospects were not great.
“The ‘walk of the dead clade’ is a term used in extinction studies that refers to when a group of organisms technically survive a mass extinction, but are so damaged by it that they no longer never recovers and lingers a bit before finally disappearing.” project co-investigator Christian Kammerer (opens in a new tab)the curator of paleontology research at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, told Live Science in an email.
Walking dead clades can last millions of years after a mass extinction” but never re-diversify or reach substantial abundance in ecosystems, so they are already “dead” from a macro perspective. scalable,” he explained.
The research was presented Nov. 3 at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology’s annual conference in Toronto and has yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal.
Related: Ancient saber-toothed ‘gorgonians’ bit each other in ritualized combat
Gorgonopsians — named after the mythical, monstrous Greek gorgons, whose appearance could turn people to stone — existed long before the dinosaurs emerged during the Triassic about 240 to 230 million years ago.
Researchers were aware of a partial gorgonopsian skull from the Karoo basin dating to the Induan age of the Triassic period (251.9 million to 251.2 million years ago). Other researchers had rejected this skull, thinking it had been misidentified or misdated. But a new investigation revealed that it was “definitely a gorgonopsian”, possibly of the genus Cyonosaurus, said Kammerer and lead author Julien Benoit (opens in a new tab)senior researcher in paleontology at the Institute for Evolutionary Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
Next, the duo analyzed two additional specimens, likely also members of Cyonosaurus, from the Karoo basin. Of the three gorgonopsian specimens, two come from sites spanning the Permo-Triassic boundary and the third from an Early Triassic layer.
It is possible that Cyonosaurus survived the mass extinction due to its small size, abundance, and flexible diet. The fox-sized carnivore – which sported a narrow, elongated, tooth-filled snout – was one of the smallest known gorgonopsians ever recorded. Small generalist predators generally adapt better to changing ecosystems than large, specialized predators and are therefore more likely to cope with catastrophic events, Kammerer said. “So if there was one gorgonopsian that could be expected to survive in the Triassic, it would be Cyonosaurus,” he said.
After the mass extinction, biodiversity collapsed in the Karoo basin and a tusked herbivorous animal called Lystrosauruswho lived during parts of the Permian and Triassic, exploded in numbers, “So, Cyonosaurus probably didn’t run out of prey,” Benoit told Live Science in an email.
Research is ongoing and “further examination of these sites is warranted,” the team said. But the data indicates that gorgonopsians survived into the early part of the Triassic, which is about as surprising as a tyrannosaur surviving the asteroid hitting Earth, the scientists joked in their conference abstract.
That said, Triassic gorgonopsians were rare and single genus, so this dead walking clade “should still be considered a victim of the late Permian mass extinction event,” the researchers said.
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