Prehistoric monster that makes today’s lions look like moggies found in museum drawer

The powerful hunter larger than a polar bear – today’s biggest land carnivore – was on the prowl 22 million years, killing prey with enormous piercing canine teeth set in its rhinoceros-size skull. Neither big cat nor wild dog, the creature was a member of long extinct group of mammals called hyaenodonts which reigned the landscape in what is modern-day Kenya. Their reign lasted for more than 45 million years after the age of the dinosaurs but, like the giant reptiles, they too vanished into oblivion, possibly because of climatic changes.

Pieces of fossilised jaw and skull have now given researchers a remarkable insight into the life of the newly described creature to science, which has been named Simbakubwa kutokaafrika.

Its existence only came to light when Ohio University researchers, Dr Nancy Stevens and Dr Matthew Borths, studied specimens that had been placed in a drawer at the National Museums of Kenya several decades ago. The fossils had been gathering dust after being unearthed previously by researchers searching for evidence of ancient apes. Their significance was soon apparent.

As Dr Borths explained this week following the publication of a new scientific study in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

“Opening a museum drawer, we saw a row of gigantic meat-eating teeth, clearly belonging to a species new to science,” he said.

The creature – which could have measured more than 12ft nose to tail – has been given the scientific name of Simbakubwa kutokaafrika which translates from Swahili as “big lion coming from Africa”.

Although Simbakubwa played a similar role in the food chain as modern lions, it was far larger than any of today's felines and sits on a totally different branch of the evolutionary tree.

Hyaenodonts were Africa’s first mammalian carnivores, intimidating ecosystems occupied by early apes and monkeys until, after millions of years of isolation, tectonic movements joined the continents, bringing south cats, dogs and hyenas as they moved northwards.

Dr Borths, a National Science Foundation postdoctoral research fellow with Dr Stevens in the Department of Biomedical Sciences at Ohio University when the research was conducted, continueed: “It’s a fascinating time in biological history. Lineages that had never encountered each other begin to appear together in the fossil record.”

With grasslands replacing forests and mammalian linesages diversifying between 18 and 15 million years ago, the hyaenodonts went the way of the dinosaurs, although the reasons are not certain.

Dr Borths, now curator of the division of fossil primates at the Duke Lemur Centre at Duke University, North Carolina, added: “We don’t know exactly what drove hyaenodonts to extinction, but ecosystems were changing quickly as the global climate became drier. The gigantic relatives of Simbakubwa were among the last hyaenodonts on the planet.”

For Dr Stevens, Professor in the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine at Ohio University and co-author of the study, the fossil left languishing in a drawer is a major discovery.

She said: “This is a pivotal fossil, demonstrating the significance of museum collections for understanding evolutionary history.

“Simbakubwa is a window into a bygone era. As ecosystems shifted, a key predator disappeared, heralding Cenozoic faunal transitions that eventually led to the evolution of the modern African fauna.”

The importance of the find is echoed by Daniel Marenda, a programme director at the National Science Foundation, which funded this research.

He said: “This discovery underscores both the importance of supporting innovative uses of fossil collections, as well as the importance of supporting the research and professional development of talented young postdoctoral scientists like Dr Borths.

“This work has the potential to help us understand how species adapt – or fail to adapt in this case – to a rapidly changing global climate.”

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