A recent research on Inostrancevia, a tiger-sized, saber-toothed species, sheds light on the 252 million-year-old “Great Dying” extinction catastrophe.
Fossils show that this species travelled 7,000 kilometers across Pangaea to fill a gap left by defunct top predators in a distant habitat before going extinct. These Russian critters were surprisingly found in South Africa’s Karoo Basin.
Apex predators may predict catastrophic extinctions due to their extinction before the main event. Researchers highlight analogies between historical patterns and present ecological challenges, emphasizing the need of understanding previous extinction events to forecast and perhaps ameliorate biodiversity loss.
Earth suffered “the Great Dying” 252 million years ago. Massive volcanic eruptions caused catastrophic climatic change, killing nine out of ten species and paving the way for dinosaurs.
The Great Dying, which ended the Permian epoch, lasted up to a million years.
As species struggled to adapt, the fossil record portrays drama and turmoil. A new fossil discovery suggests that Inostrancevia, a tiger-sized, saber-toothed creature, migrated 7,000 miles across Pangaea to fill a gap in a faraway ecosystem that had lost its top predators before going extinct.
South Africa’s late Permian top predators died extinct before the global extinction. Pia Viglietti, a Field Museum research scientist and co-author of the Current Biology paper, states, “We learned that Inostrancevia occupied this niche for a brief period.”
The archaic beast resembled a top predator. “Inostrancevia was a gorgonopsian, a group of proto-mammals that included the first saber-toothed predators on Earth,” explains Viglietti. It looked like a reptile but was a mammal like a tiger.
Before this article, Inostrancevia was only discovered in Russia. Viglietti’s colleague Christian Kammerer observed two enormous predatory species in South Africa’s Karoo Basin that were unusual for the region. Viglietti believes the fossils were surprising. It’s unclear how they crossed Pangaea from Russia to South Africa or how long it took. The fossils’ uniqueness wasn’t only their remoteness.
“When we reviewed the ranges and ages of the other top predators normally found in the area, the rubidgeine gorgonopsians, with these Inostrancevia fossils, we found something quite exciting,” she adds. By the time other species go extinct, the local predators are gone.
When Inostrancevia came 7,000 miles away and perished, these top predators were “canaries in the coal mine” for the extinction catastrophe.
“This shows that the South African Karoo Basin continues to produce critical data for understanding Earth’s most catastrophic mass extinction,” says co-author Jennifer Botha, director of GENUS Centre of Excellence in Palaeosciences and professor at the Evolutionary Studies Institute, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.
“We have shown that the shift in which groups of animals occupied apex predator roles occurred four times over less than two million years around the Permian-Triassic mass extinction, which is unprecedented in land life. The study’s primary author, Christian Kammerer, is a paleontology research curator at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and a Field Museum research associate.
Today’s top predators are vulnerable. Kammerer adds, “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 like hunting or habitat destruction.
Think of wolves in Europe or tigers in Asia, slow-growing creatures that need huge spaces to roam and find prey and are now extinct in much of their ancient habitats. We should assume that historical apex predators had comparable vulnerabilities and were among the first to go extinct during large extinction events.”
Viglietti thinks the finding is crucial because it can tell us about the present ecological calamities and the extinction event that helped the dinosaurs rise.
“It’s always good to get a better understanding of how mass extinction events affect ecosystems, especially because the Permian is basically a parallel on what we’re going through,” said Viglietti. The Permo-Triassic mega extinction event is one of the greatest analogs for contemporary climate catastrophe and extinctions. The only difference is we know what to do and how to stop it.”