Prehistoric Human-Sized Salamander was a Top Predator

Artist’s representation by Joana Bruno via University of Edinburgh
Janet Fang 24 Mar 2015, 18:29

Bones excavated from an ancient, dried-up lake in Portugal suggest that an ancient salamander-like amphibian grew up to two meters (6.5 ft) long, and during the Late Triassic 220 million years ago, they occupied the same top predatory niche as today's crocodiles. The findings were published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology this week. 

The largest salamander we have nowadays are giant Chinese salamanders, which can grow to more than a meter (3.3 ft) long. Most, however, are much, much tinier. Primitive, predatory amphibians called metoposaurids are pretty common in the Upper Triassic sediments of what’s now North Africa, Europe, India, and North America, and they’re usually found at low latitudes. (The "saur" in their name is a bit deceptive, since they're amphibians and not lizards or dinosaurs.) 

Now, by examining several skull and jaw specimens unearthed in the Late Triassic bonebeds of Algarve in southern Portugal, a team led by University of Edinburgh’s Stephen Brusatte has discovered the first Metoposaurus species from the Iberian Peninsula. The 100-kilogram (220 lb) Metoposaurus algarvensis was named after the region where the fossils were unearthed, and it likely grew up to two meters (6.5 feet) long. Like today’s crocs, they fed on fish in lakes and rivers during the Late Triassic when the first dinosaurs were just beginning to dominate the planet. 

“This new amphibian looks like something out of a bad monster movie. It was as long as a small car and had hundreds of sharp teeth in its big flat head, which kind of looks like a toilet seat when the jaws snap shut,” Brusatte says in a news release. “It was the type of fierce predator that the very first dinosaurs had to put up with if they strayed too close to the water, long before the glory days of T. rex and Brachiosaurus.”

Most of these super salamander species died out during the major extinction event 201 million years ago—paving the way for the dinosaurs' 150-million-year reign. Because metoposaur remains are often found in large groups, NBC reports, researchers think that mass deaths must have occurred. Perhaps the lake system forming their habitat dried up. Those thin legs could barely carry its weight when out of the water.

This newly discovered species, the team says, was part of an ancestral stock living on the supercontinent Pangaea, from which our frogs and newts evolved. Here’s a close-up:

Image: Joana Bruno via University of Edinburgh

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