Naming a new species is a wonderful thing to do. It’s a statement that you’ve discovered an entirely new organism to science, and naming it is a personal touch about how you perceive the importance of it.
Last year, researchers named a 34 million year old canine-like fossil from Egypt, with an exquisitely preserved skull. It was named after the ancient Egyptian god of the Underworld, Anubis, often associated with the afterlife.
From myth to reality
Its full name is Masrasector nananubis, the species name actually meaning “little Anubis” from Greek νάνος (nannos) for little and Anubis (Ἄνουβις). How appropriate for this little dog-like fossil!
The researchers who named it are Matthew Borths from Ohio University and Erik Seiffert from the University of Southern California. All specimens were collected over decades of excavation from a locality known as the Fayum Depression, 14.5 km west of Qasr el-Sagha Temple. Rocks the fossils were excavated from dated to the Late Eocene, making them around 34 million years old.
The animal is known as a hyaenodont, which you might be able to guess from the name is a relative of modern hyenas and other doggos. In the past, these carnivores lived widely across Africa, Europe, Asia and North America, radiating after the extinction of the predatory dinosaurs.
However, the relationships of these hyaenodonts has been difficult to resolve in the past due to their poor fossil record, which almost exclusively comprises tooth remains. This is especially the case for a sub-group called teratodontines, an Afro-Arabian group which Masrasector was part of.
Thankfully, due to the amazing preservation of Masrasector’s skull, as well as some of its jaws and limb bones, researchers were able to show that Masrasector and other teratodontines were closely related to other hyaenodonts that had a hypercarnivorous diet – eating almost exclusively meat.
The length of the limb bones also showed that Masrasector was a fast, agile hunter, just like modern hyenas. At only the size of a skunk though, and weighing only around 1kg, it’s likely that Masrasector only fed on smaller prey items. Its teeth were quite similar to those of a mongoose, and Masrasector probably had a diet of mostly small vertebrates and insects, as well as some fruits and nuts.
“Hyaenodonts were the top predators in Africa after the extinction of the dinosaurs,” says Borths. “This new species is associated with a dozen specimens, including skulls and arm bones, which means we can explore what it ate, how it moved, and consider why these carnivorous mammals died off as the relatives of dogs, cats, and hyenas moved into Africa.”
Read more in this interview with author Matt Borths.
Borths MR, Seiffert ER (2017) Craniodental and humeral morphology of a new species of Masrasector (Teratodontinae, Hyaenodonta, Placentalia) from the late Eocene of Egypt and locomotor diversity in hyaenodonts. PLoS ONE 12(4): e0173527. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0173527