Oh My God… This Existed

An illustration of a battle between Dimetrodon and Xenacanthus.

(illustration from here)

With fangs and the first sawlike teeth on Earth, the biggest predator in the swamps of the early Permian Period ate anything it wanted.

But when Dimetrodon waddled on land 290 million years ago, there weren’t enough tasty herbivores to go around, according to an idea proposed in the 1970s by famed paleontologist E. C. Olson. “There were too many meat eaters,” said Robert Bakker, the curator of paleontology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. “There was a meat deficit all over the world.”

After 11 years of sifting through fossils in Baylor County, Texas, Bakker said he thinks he has proved Olson right, based on research presented Monday (Oct. 20) here at the Geological Society of America’s annual meeting.

During the early Permian, carnivores greatly outnumbered herbivores on land, so Dimetrodon filled its belly by hunting in shallow water. In the bone beds, Bakker and his collaborators uncovered 30 Dimetrodons and only two herbivores. But the fossil hunters also found masses of freshwater shark fossils intermingled with Dimetrodon teeth. Dimetrodon shed teeth throughout its life, and the lost crowns are like bullets at a crime scene, Bakker said. “This is CSI,” Bakker told Live Science. “Sharks were eaten by Dimetrodon in great numbers.”

Dimetrodon resembled a sail-backed Komodo dragon on steroids, and probably hunted with ease in the water. But the shark, a Xenacanth, while nowhere near as large as a Dimetrodon, fought to the death. Hundreds of shark coprolites (fossil poop) in the bone beds hold Dimetrodon bone fragments. Distinctive crescent-shaped shark bites were also discovered on intact Dimetrodon bones, although the marks suggest Xenacanthus sharks were too delicate to wrench off their foes’ limbs.

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