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Imagine if you crossed a rhino with a giant turtle and then supersized the result: You might get something like Lisowicia bojani, a newly discovered Triassic mammal cousin that had a body shaped like a rhinoceros, a beak like a turtle, and weighed as much as an African elephant, about 9 tons. Paleontologists say this startling creature offers a new view of the dawn of the age of the dinosaurs. "Who would have ever thought that there were giant, elephant-sized mammal cousins living alongside some of the very first dinosaurs?" marvels Stephen Brusatte, a vertebrate paleontologist at The University of Edinburgh.
Researchers had thought that during the Late Triassic, from about 240 million until 201 million years ago, early mammals and their relatives "retreated to the shadows while dinosaurs rose up and grew to huge sizes," Brusatte says. "That's the story I tell my students in my lectures. But this throws a wrench into that simple tale," suggesting the same evolutionary forces that favored giant dinosaurs were at work on other creatures as well.
Fossil - Skeleton - Online - Week - Science
The new fossil, a partial skeleton described online this week in Science, is an ancient plant eater called a dicynodont; the name means "two dog tooth," referring to the characteristic tusks on the upper jaw, which resemble oversize canines. Apart from the tusks, dicynodonts were mostly toothless, with a horny beak like modern-day turtles. They're part of the large evolutionary group called synapsids, which includes our mammal ancestors, and they were some of the most abundant and diverse land animals from the mid-Permian period into the Middle Triassic, from 270 million until about 240 million years ago.
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Dicynodonts "are the first group of vertebrates that were successfully able to eat plants," says Tomasz Sulej, a...
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