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34 million year old carnivore named after the Egyptian god of the Underworld

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.

Anubis attending to a mummy (Source: Wikipedia, public domain)

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 skull of Masrasector nananubis. Credit: Matt Borths

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.

Little Anubis

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.”

Good doggy.

Read more in this interview with author Matt Borths.

Reference

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

Discussion
  1. Hi Jon, thanks for the article. I feel obliged to point out some phylogenetic pedantry. The position of the Hyaenodonta among eutherian mammals has long been controversial. For many years they were considered part of the Creodonta, historically something of a wastebasket taxon until winnowed down to two clades, the Hyaenodonta and Oxyaenodonta. The Creodonta so defined was usually considered throughout much of the 20thC as the sister group of Carnivora. Relatively recently, however, a number of workers have posited that Creodonta is paraphyletic and some have advanced the proposal (as yet not rigorously tested) that the Hyaenodonta are a part of the Afrotheria, a group whose living members include elephants, hyraxes, manatees, aardvarks and sengis. That would make us more closely related to fellow boreotheres such as dogs and hyaenas than afrotherian hyaenodonts would be. Furthermore, hyaenas are not doggos. While dogs and hyaenas are indeed both carnivorans, they lie on seperate branches of the clade and last shared a common ancestor over 50 million years ago, and their superficially similar appearance is an instance of convergent (or possibly parallel?) evolution. Molecular studies show that the Canidae are basal caniformian carnivorans and the sister group of all other extant caniformians (the Arctoidea), while the Hyaenidae is nested high in the feliformian carnivoran branch, and they form the Herpestoidea with their sister group, the Herpestidae [mongooses] + Eupleridae [fossas, falanoucs etc]). Thanks for maintaining this blog, it’s great.

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