Fossil of giant salamander unearthed in Namibia

A team of scientists has discovered a top predator with a skull of two feet long, dominated by enormous tusks. This species lived in freshwater before the dinosaurs.

A study published Wednesday in Nature calls the species Gaiasia jennyae — a salamander-like tetrapod, or four-legged vertebrate, that lived in what is now Namibia. Its eight-foot-long body is the largest tetrapod yet found with digits, and it had a broad, flat, diamond-shaped head and enlarged, interlocking canines, the authors wrote. The fossils suggest it was a suction feeder that also had a powerful bite to capture larger prey.

“It has these enormous canines, the entire front of the mouth is just giant teeth,” study co-leader Jason D. Pardo, of the Negaunee Integrative Research Center at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, said in a statement.

The research team, led by Claudia A. Marsicano of the University of Buenos Aires and Pardo, described it as a “new, exceptionally large, aquatic tetrapod” that “provides crucial information about the tetrapods that inhabited the high latitudes of Gondwana,” referring to the polar regions of the prehistoric southern landmass.

Anthony Romilio, a paleontologist at the Dinosaur Lab at the University of Queensland in Australia who was not involved in the study, wrote in an email that it was a “fascinating discovery” that “challenges the belief that early land animals (tetrapods) were found primarily near the equator in coal-producing wetlands.”

Gaiasia much further south than its closest relatives that lived in what is now North America and Europe,” he said, adding that the discovery “indicates that early tetrapods were more widespread and better adapted to different climates in the cooler, southern high latitudes of the ancient supercontinent than previously thought.”

Christian A. Sidor, a professor of paleobiology at the University of Washington who was also not part of the research team, wrote in Nature that the discovery helped “fill a gap in the fossil record” because it was found in “a place and time no paleontologist had expected.”

The creature lived about 280 million years ago during the Early Permian, a time when there was one continent, Pangaea — and about 40 million years before the first dinosaurs. It was the time of other predators such as Dimetrodona carnivore with a sail on its back, and Helicopriona shark-like fish with teeth arranged in a spiral shape.

Gaiasia jennyae was an “archaic” species even in its time, Pardo said, surviving about 40 million years after most of its relatives had died out, at the end of an ice age when new animal species were forming.

It is named after the Gai-As formation in Namibia, where the fossils were found, and in honor of paleontologist Jenny Clack, who died in 2020. The scientists gleaned the information about the creature from four specimens.

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