The Permian-Triassic extinction 252 million years ago was the most severe mass extinction in Earth’s history, so incredibly devastating that it’s been nicknamed the “Great Dying” – but there were still some animals that somehow just… didn’t seem to really notice it at all.

And one of these surprisingly resilient species was Hovasaurus boulei.

It was part of a group known as the tangasaurids, a fairly early evolutionary branch of diapsid reptiles from Madagascar and East Africa that originated sometime in the mid-Permian, just before the common ancestor of modern lizards and archosaurs.

Hovasaurus lived in Madagascar both just before and for some time after the Great Dying, dating to around 252-247 million years ago. Growing up to about 90cm long (~3′), it was one of the largest tangasaurids and was also highly specialized for aquatic life in freshwater rivers, with an eel-like tail twice the length of the rest of its body and heavy thickened ribs.

Hundreds of fossils have been found representing life stages from hatchling to adult, and juvenile Hovasaurus actually seem to have been almost fully aquatic – they had proportionally shorter limbs and may have behaved similarly to modern sea turtles, crawling into the water shortly after hatching and only returning to land as adults once they had longer better-developed legs.

Many fossils also preserve clusters of pebbles in their abdominal cavities, which are thought to have been used as extra ballast to help weigh them down in the water when hunting small fish and invertebrates.

It’s not entirely clear why these odd little aquatic reptiles were apparently unaffected by the Great Dying. Perhaps, much like the many freshwater species that survived though the later end-Cretaceous mass extinction, Hovasaurus was simply very good at dealing with sudden changes in its environment and food availability due to the variability of river habitats, and was able to weather though the worst of the extinction without much trouble. 

Or maybe it was just one of the lucky ones.

Unsolved Paleo Mysteries Month #08 – Everything Dies Except Lystrosaurus

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.