A very large mammal cousin the size of an elephant that chews plants with its horned beak explores European landscapes with dinosaurs during the Triassic Period around 205 million to 210 million last year, scientists said.
Scientists announced a surprising discovery in Poland about a four-legged animal fossil called Lisowicia bojani which showed that dinosaurs were not the only giant on Earth at that time.
This also shows that the group of mammalian-like reptiles that belonged to Lisowicia, called dicynodonts, did not die long ago as previously believed.
"We think it's one of the most unexpected fossil discoveries from the European Triassic," said paleontologist Grzegorz Niedzwiedzki from Uppsala University in Sweden.
Lisowicia, the largest non-dinosaur land animal that ever lived at that time, has a length of about 4.5 meters, 2.6 meters and weighs 9 tons. The only other giant at the time was an early member of a group of dinosaurs called sauropods that had four legs, a long neck and a long tail.
"Lisowicia's skull and jaw are very special: toothless and mouth equipped with aroused beaks, as in turtles and horned dinosaurs," Niedzwiedzki said, adding that it was unclear whether it had fangs like some of its relatives did.
The Trias is the opening chapter in the age of dinosaurs, followed by the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. The first dinosaurs appeared around 230 million years ago. Many of the earliest medium-sized dinosaurs, overshadowed by large land reptiles include fearsome predators called rauisuchians and alligator phytosaurs.
"The final Triassic era was not only when the dinosaurs emerged, it was also when the last dicynodonts decided to compete with dinosaurs. Finally, dinosaurs won this evolutionary competition," said paleontologist Tomasz Sulej of the Polish Academy of Sciences in the Paleobiology Institute.
Dicynodonts mixes the characteristics of reptiles and mammals. Emerging in the first millions of years before the first mammals evolved in the late Triassic, these plant eaters ranged in size from small diggers to large browsers. They became land herbivores that were dominant in the middle and late Triassic, but until now were considered dead before dinosaurs became the dominant land animals.
The scientists found about 100 bone specimens representing several Lisowicia individuals in the Polish village of Lisowice.
Analysis of the creature's legs shows that the bones have a rapid growth rate similar to mammals or dinosaurs.
The study was published in the journal Science.
Australian Associated Press