A big, lumbering beast roamed ancient Europe. It was the size of an elephant and ate a largely herbivorous diet. The large Triassic animal wasn't a dinosaur, though—it was a sort of half-lizard, half-mammal beast belonging to the family of Synapsids.
Researchers announced this bizarre beast in a study published today in . The creature, given the scientific name Lisowicia bojani, belongs to the dicynodonts, which were some of the first large herbivores. This is the first dicynodont found in Europe.
"Lisowicia is the largest synapsid from the Triassic and is even larger than some synapsids from Permian," says Grzegorz Niedzwiedzki, a professor at Uppsala University and lead author of the paper. "This discovery falsifies the established picture of the Late Triassic megaherbivore radiation as a phenomenon restricted to dinosaurs."
Synapsid is an umbrella term typically applied to mammal-like reptiles (and also encompassing mammals today.) They initially arose nearly 300 million years ago in the Permian period, and one of the more famous members is the Dimetrodon, which looks a bit like a monitor lizard with a giant sail on its back. At the end of the Permian, there was a sort of bottleneck that caused only smaller synapsids to survive into the Triassic. This included the dicynodonts, of which the new species is a member, and other ancient relatives of mammals.
"Dicynodonts are so-called a sister line to mammal line, but they are not their ancestors," Niedzwiedzki says. "We are distant cousins, but they are not our immediate ancestors."
The bojani had a few adaptations that enabled it to thrive as an herbivore, including a toothless mouth with a horned beak like a turtle, and its stomach acted a bit like a grain mill to digest the food. They tended to swallow the food whole by retracting their jaw.
The team were able to reconstruct so much of this beast because the skeleton is remarkably intact—Nidezwiedzki says they believe they have about 70 percent of the skeleton, which is pretty good for 211-million-year-old bones.
By looking at the bones, Niedzwiedzki and his colleagues noted that there didn't appear to be much sign of growth slowing, potentially meaning that this particular fossil may not have even been as big as they could get, as they may have continued growing even into adulthood.
"Maybe somewhere in these sediments are bones even larger individuals," he says.