Wits study uncovers pre-dinosaur fight club

2015-07-15 20:28
(Wits University)

(Wits University)

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Johannesburg – A Wits University study has gone back 270 million years to discover more about the male headbutting of a sabre-toothed pre-dinosaur mammalian species.

“Headbutting and canine display during male-male combat first appeared some 270 million years ago,” said Professor Fernando Abdala of the Witwatersrand University’s Evolutionary Studies Institute on Wednesday.

He said the same kind of combative behaviour seen today between male deers was already taking place millennia ago between the male Brazilian mammal ancestors, Tiarajudens eccentricus as part of a fight for a female or to win leadership of a group.

The finding was made during an in-depth study by Brazilian researcher, Dr Juan Carlos Cisneros, and his co-authors from the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand,Abdala and Dr Tea Jashasvili. On Wednesday their article about their research was published in the journal, Royal Society Open Science.

The article presents details about the skull, skeleton and dental make-up of the T.eccentricus.

One of the most surprising discoveries was that the species was definitely more (tree) bark than bite.

“Despite large protruding sabre-tooth canines and occluding post canine teeth, it was a herbivore,”said
Abdala.

“The long canine in the herbivore T.eccentricus is the oldest evidence where male herbivores have used their canines during fights with rivals,” he said.

The researchers found the Tiarajudens’ marginal teeth were located in a bone from the palate called epipterygoid.

“This is an extraordinary condition as no other animal in the lineage leading to mammals show marginal dentition in a bone from the palate,” said Abdala.

The T.eccentricus also has a closely related South African cousin, Anomocephalus africanus, with the two sharing their intimate connection from the Permian period, hundreds of millions of years ago, when the countries were joined together in the supercontinent of Gondwana.

“They are pretty similar in the skulls. The main difference is that the Brazilian species has a long sabre-tooth canine that is not in the African species.”

The cousins were among the first communities where “diverse, abundant tetrapod herbivores” were evolving. Tetrapods are any four limbed species or descendants thereof. The SA species was discovered 10 years ago, and its Brazilian counterpart four years ago.

While the A.Africanus did not appear to indulge in the headbutting practice of its Brazilian brethren, another species, the dinocephalians - living at the same time and whose fossils have been found in the Karoo - were believed to be among those ready to rumble.

“Some of the bones in their foreheads were massively thickened. This can be interpreted as being used in headbutting combat.”

Abdala reiterated the key role of the fossils in the Karoo in terms of research. “The record in the Karoo is the most important in the world. We have a continuous record from the Karoo as a desert area, with a lot of fossils here.”

When it came to understanding transitions as various mammals and reptiles evolved, “the Karoo is the place,” he said.

Fellow researcher Cisneros said their latest discoveries highlighted how fossils always offered up surprises.

“Now they show us unexpectedly that 270 million years ago two forms of interspecific combat represented in deer today, were already present in the forerunners of mammals.”

Read more on:    wits  |  johannesburg  |  archaeology

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