Revealed: Karoo dog-sized predator hunted with venom long before snakes

2017-02-13 08:50
Dr Julien Benoit with the skull of the Euchambersia fossil that was found near Colesberg, in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa, in 1966. (Wits University)

Dr Julien Benoit with the skull of the Euchambersia fossil that was found near Colesberg, in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa, in 1966. (Wits University)

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Johannesburg – A pre-mammalian reptile from 260 million years ago, the Euchambersia, has emerged as the first known animal to produce venom, the University of the Witwatersrand reported.

"What is intriguing is that Euchambersia is related to early mammals, not snakes," the university said in a statement.

"The Euchambersia became venomous about 100 million years before snakes did."

This finding was revealed after CT scans of two fossils of the small, dog-sized creature, which lived in the Karoo, indicated that it had anatomical features designed for venom production.

The two fossils – the only ever found – were discovered separately in 1932 and in 1966, although they were lying just metres apart on the same farm in the Eastern Cape. The advent of cutting-edge CT scanning and 3D imagery techniques has now allowed for further exploration.

'Oldest venomous vertebrate'

"This is the first evidence of the oldest venomous vertebrate ever found, and what is even more surprising is that it is not in a species that we expected it to be," said Dr Julien Benoit, researcher at the Bernard Price Institute for Palaeontological Research at the university.

"Today, snakes are notorious for their venomous bite, but their fossil record vanishes in the depth of geological times at about 167 million years ago, so, at 260 million years ago, the Euchambersia evolved venom more than 100 million years before the very first snake was even born."

The skull of the Euchambersia fossil
The skull of the Euchambersia fossil shows the large space for the venom glands, in the top jaw, right behind the front teeth (just to the right of Dr Julien Benoit’s index finger). (Wits University)

The Euchambersia, which lived long before the first dinosaur ever walked the earth, was discovered to have a space in its skull to accommodate a venom gland, which was present on the upper jaw and connected to the canine and mouth.

"Unlike snakes like vipers or cobras, which actively inject their prey with venom through needle-like grooves in their teeth, the Euchambersia's venom flowed directly into its mouth," explained the University.

Benoit said it was likely that the Euchambersia used the venom predominantly for hunting.

The skull of the Euchambersia fossil
The skull of the Euchambersia fossil shows the large space for the venom glands, in the top jaw, right behind the front teeth. (Wits University)

Read more on:    wits university  |  johannesburg  |  paleontology  |  animals  |  palaeontology

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