Even before Lystrosaurus briefly took over the world, the dicynodont synapsids were a highly successful group. These herbivorous beaked-and-tusked mammal-cousins were abundant all over the supercontinent of Pangaea during the Late Permian and occupied a wide variety of ecological niches, ranging from rat-sized to almost bear-sized. (And later during the Triassic some got even bigger.)
Towards the smaller end of that size range were species like Diictodon. Living around 259-254 million years ago in Southern Africa (but with fossils also found in northern China, suggesting a much larger geographic range) this dicynodont grew up to about 45cm long (1’6″) and was a gopher-like creature adapted for digging, with a tubular body and short muscular limbs.
It was a very common animal, making up around half of all vertebrate fossils in some locations. Numerous preserved spiral-shaped burrows have been found concentrated in small areas, going down as much as 1.5m (5′) into the ground.
Several different species have been named within the Diictodon genus, but currently they’ve all been lumped together under the single name of Diictodon feliceps. There’s a lot of anatomical variation between specimens, though, with some notably being smaller and lacking the distinctive tusks seen in others – which may be evidence of sexual dimorphism, with the tuskless individuals possibly being females. (Although differences in inner ear anatomy may also indicate they were a separate species entirely, in which case female D. feliceps might instead be represented by fossils showing smaller tusks.)
I’ve illustrated one of the tuskless forms here, since they don’t generally get as much attention as the tusked ones. It’s also speculatively fluffy and iridescent similar to modern golden moles.
Synapsids just keep evolving saber teeth.
Both proto-mammals and true mammals have independently evolved oversized fangs quite a few different times in a lot of different lineages over the last few hundred million years (even in some modern ones), and one of the first to experiment with such a feature was Tiarajudens eccentricus.
Living in southern Brazil towards the end of the Permian period, about 265-260 million years ago, Tiarujudens was an early member of a group of known as anomodonts. These chunky herbivorous synapsids weren’t directly ancestral to modern mammals, but were instead evolutionary cousins, and their lineage eventually included tusked dicynodonts like the world-conquering Lystrosaurus.
Tiarajudens was around 1-1.2m long (3’3″-3’11”) and sported a pair of very long blade-like canine teeth in its upper jaw. Since the rest of its teeth were clearly adapted for eating plants – with one of the the earliest known examples of flat grinding molars that would have allowed it to chew up tough vegetation – these fangs probably served more of a display or defensive function.
The saber teeth may even have been a sexually dimorphic feature like in modern musk deer. Another anomodont from South Africa, Anomocephalus africanus, is incredibly similar to Tiarajudens except for a lack of fangs – and since South America and Africa were connected as part of Pangaea at the time, it’s possible that these two actually represent males and females of the same species.
Without finding a larger number of fossils we can’t know for certain, but it’s an interesting possibility at least.
Dicynodonts were a group of herbivorous animals with toothless beaks and protruding tusks, part of the synapsid lineage and much closer related to mammals than to reptiles. They were some of the most successful and widespread land vertebrates from the Late Permian to the Middle Triassic, with one genus even briefly taking over the world in the aftermath of the End-Permian mass extinction event.
And it turns out some of them got very big.
Fossils of a surprisingly large dicynodont were first reported in 2008, but it wasn’t until just recently (in late 2018) that this giant creature was finally given an official name – Lisowicia bojani.
Close in size to a modern elephant, at around 2.6m tall (8′6″) and 4.5m long (14′9″), it was by far the largest known example of its kind to have ever lived. And while most other dicynodonts had upright hindlimbs and sprawling forelimbs, Lisowicia seems to have developed a fully upright posture much more similar to that of quadrupedal dinosaurs and modern mammals.
It was also one of the very last of its kind, living during the Late Triassic of Poland, about 208 million years ago (although there was a possible later survivor in Australia). This was around the same time that early sauropod dinosaurs were likewise first starting to experiment with gigantism, suggesting that both groups were convergently evolving to exploit newly-available ecological niches.
Who’s that synapsid?
It’s Bulbasaurus phylloxyron!
This creature was a member of the dicynodonts, a group of herbivorous mammal-relatives with beaks and protruding tusks. Its fossils are known from the Late Permian of South Africa, about 259-254 million years ago, and it would have been roughly the size of a cat, around 60cm long (2′).
It wasn’t officially named after the pokémon character Bulbasaur, but instead in reference to the bulbous bosses on its snout. But combined with how the species name “phylloxyron” means “leaf razor”, it doesn’t seem to entirely be a coincidence.
Geikia elginensis, a dicynodont synapsid from the Late Permian of Scotland (~254-252 mya). Known only from a single skull discovered in the 1890s, it would have measured around 50cm long and was closely related to South African forms like Bulbasaurus.
It had an unusually shortened snout and forward-facing eyes – sort of like a pug with a beak – and a pair of protruding nasal bosses on its snout. It was probably a selective browser, biting off small pieces of vegetation at a time, and its large eyes and stereoscopic vision suggest it may have been nocturnal.
The extinction event that wiped out the non-avian dinosaurs is probably the most “famous” mass extinction, but it wasn’t the worst one in Earth’s history. That morbid honor goes to the Permian-Triassic extinction 252 million years ago – also aptly known as the Great Dying.
A truly massive amount of biodiversity was lost in this event, with 96% of marine species and 70% of terrestrial species disappearing. Some marine ecosystems seemed to rebound fairly quickly, but overall it may have taken at least 5-10 million years for anything close to full recovery. Terrestrial vertebrates may even have taken up to 30 million years to regain previous levels of diversity.
And… we’re not sure why it happened.
One of the main potential culprits is the massive eruption of the Siberian Traps – one of the largest known volcanic events on Earth – but other explanations include an asteroid impact, methane-producing microbes, ocean anoxia, the formation of Pangaea, a nearby supernova destroying the ozone layer, and even dark matter.
Or it might have been a result of multiple causes at once, events that wouldn’t have been so severe individually but became disastrous in combination. This is known as the “Murder on the Orient Express Model”: maybe they all did it.
But there’s also a secondary element to today’s mystery. In the aftermath of the Great Dying, a small dicynodont synapsid briefly took over the world. For the first few million years of the Triassic, around 95% of the Earth’s population of terrestrial vertebrates were all Lystrosaurus – no other genus or species of animal has ever dominated to such a degree.
Why did these squat little dog-sized animals survive and thrive when everything else was struggling? They might have been opportunistic generalists able to deal with changing conditions better than other groups, the extinction of most large predators may have allowed their population to explode, or it might simply have been a matter of luck.
We just don’t know.