First Complete Fossil Of Fierce Prehistoric Predator Found In South Africa

a gorgon's torso and limbs, and it should resolve a long debate about whether the creatures held their legs beneath them like mammals or splayed from the body like reptiles. The specimen will be given to vertebrate anatomists for study before it is prepared and mounted for display in the South African Museum in Cape Town.

Smith and Ward measured the skull at about 30 inches long, while the backbone was more than 6.5 feet long and the overall length was nearly 9.75 feet. The skeleton will be plastered and removed with jackhammers and large rock-moving equipment.

Gorgonopsids were the largest predators of the late Paleozoic, the era just before dinosaurs. They grew as large as 10 feet long and were among the most ferocious predators ever, Ward said. Their heads appeared somewhat dog-like, with large saber-tooth upper canine teeth up to 4 inches long. Though they had a somewhat mammalian appearance, their eyes were set at the sides of the head like those of a lizard, and the body was probably covered with scales rather than hair. The gorgons would have resembled a cross between a lion and a large monitor lizard - leading to the name science has given them. "Gorgons" are mythical monsters with such a horrible appearance that gazing upon them turns an observer to stone.

Gorgons are members of the Therapsida, one of the major groups of vertebrates. They shared a common descendant with reptiles, but were on a line that gave rise to mammals rather than dinosaurs, lizards, turtles or birds. They were wiped out in the world's most severe extinction, the Permo-Triassic mass extinction of 250 million years ago that killed 80 percent to 90 percent of all species on Earth, Ward said.

The gorgon is one of 70 skeletons found by Smith and Ward on this expedition, which was paid for by the International Programs division of the National Science Foundation. The discovery came in the most recently formed rock in which such a fossil has ever been found, in sediment beds

Contact: vinces@u.washington.edu
University of Washington

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