Therapsida - a group of herbivorous, insectivorous, and saber-toothed predators, such as two new species - roamed the Earth for millions of years before the earliest dinosaurs. The fossils are providing new insight into the early evolution of mammals, which was a time when the role of some carnivores drastically changed. Protomammals formed an important part of the terrestrial ecosystems which is during the Permian Period, and it dates back to almost 229 to 252 million years ago. These species consist of saber-toothed predators, tusked herbivores, and burrowing insectivores. This makes fossils from this group that are found outside of this region-like the new discoveries-extremely important as they enable scientists to determine whether evolutionary trends in the proto-mammal fossil record occurred globally or merely regionally.
The new species from Russian Federation provide the first evidence that the turnover in predators after the mid-Permian extinction was worldwide and not unique to South Africa. Nochnitsa geminidens was a slightly smaller carnivore with a long, narrow snout and needle-like teeth. The first of the two new species, Gorynychus masyutinae, was a wolf-sized carnivore representing the largest predator in the Kotelnich fauna. One of them has been named after Zmey Gorynych - a three-headed dragon: Gorynychus, and the second one has been named after a night hag, an evil spirit of the night: Nochnitsa.
Gorynychus and Nochnitsa improve scientists' understanding of ecosystem reorganization after the mid-Permian extinction (260 mya).
These prehistoric predators lived during a transition period between two major mass extinction events, the mid-Permian extinction (260 mya) and the end-Permian extinction (252 mya), which nearly annihilated all proto-mammals.
At the time of the catastrophic late-Permian extinction, some 252 million years ago, the top predators were tiger-sized, sabre-toothed gorgonopsians.
"In between these extinctions, there was a complete flip-flop in what roles these carnivores were playing in their ecosystems - as if bears suddenly became weasel-sized and weasels became bear-sized in their place", Christian Kammerer, paleontologist at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, said in a news release. As such, remains of the proto-mammals found in other parts of the world offer invaluable perspective, helping scientists determine whether shifts in the therapsid fossil record were the result of regional or global phenomena.
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