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Deadly predator with bad manners

It came from South America, a cold-blooded killer that was discovered using Google Earth.

The Pampas killer lived 265 million years ago and it is the earliest land-living predator to have been discovered in South America. It also happens to be one of our earliest relatives.

The Pampas killer lived 265 million years ago and it is the earliest land-living predator to have been discovered in South America.

Today, the Pampas killer is to be revealed in the journal, Proceedings, of the National Academy of Sciences, after years of work by an international team of scientists that included several South Africans.

The Pampas killer, or Pampaphoneus biccai, was discovered in 2008 in the pampas region of Rio Grande do Sul, in southern Brazil. The name Pampaphoneus means Pampas killer, the pampas being the open plains found in South America.

Its species name, biccai, is in honour of José Bicca, the owner of the farm where the fossil was found. This predator was probably about the size of a leopard and is a dinocephalian therapsid, a mammal-like reptile that roamed long before the dinosaurs.

Dr Juan Cisneros and Cesar Schultz found the skull at a site they identified from a “flyover” with Google Earth.

“Brazil is covered in vegetation, so with Google Earth you can spot open areas in the middle of the green,” said Dr Fernando Abdala, a senior researcher at the Bernard Price Institute for Palaeontological Research at Wits.

Increasingly, said Abdala, scientists were using Google Earth to prospect for sites that might be fossil-yielding. In the pre-Google Earth era, scientists had to obtain and source aerial photographs or rely on luck.

Shortly after finding the skull, Cisneros, who was a doctoral student at Wits, e-mailed a picture to his alma mater, and then the excitement began.

SA is a leading authority on therapsids because the majority of fossils have been found in the Karoo.

On examining the skull, Professor Bruce Rubidge, also of the Bernard Price Institute, found that the new Brazilian species was closely related to a SA mammal-like reptile known as Australosyodon, which was discovered in the late 1980s on a farm close to the Prince Albert road in the southern Karoo. Since the 1980s, other therapsid species have been found in Russia and China.

Having only the Pampas killer’s skull to work with, scientists have had to draw on the knowledge gleaned from SA fossils to compile a profile of how this beast looked and lived.

“From footprints found in South Africa, they probably moved in herds,” explained Rubidge.

Abdala and Rubidge suspect this early predator was cold-blooded, different from the later dinosaurs.

“It might have been fast on a hot day,” laughed Rubidge.

The academics believe that after downing its prey, the Pampas killer tore chunks of flesh out of it, probably while it was still alive.

“This oke was no polite feeder,”Rubidge said. “It would have been a messy experience.”

By comparing the Pampas killer to its other therapsid cousins found in SA, Russia and China, scientists are hoping to plot the migration of land-living animals across the then supercontinent, Pangaea. - The Star

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