A predatory pre-mammal that lived in Zambia 255 million years ago has been discovered and dubbed Scarface. The sausage dog-sized creature had venomous teeth it used to capture prey and defend itself, scientists said.
The pre-mammal species has been named Ichibengops, combining the local Bemba word for scar and the Greek suffix for face – put together to give Scarface. The creature was a member of the Therocephalia group, which were mammal ancestors that managed to survive the Great Dying mass extinction (Permian-Triassic extinction).
Publishing their findings in the Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology, the scientists say Scarface had a unique groove on its upper jaw and grooves above its teeth, which scientists from the University of Utah, University of Washington and Burke Museum, and The Field Museum say were used to transmit venom into its prey.
Study author Kenneth Angielczyk said: "Discoveries of new species of animals like Ichibengops are particularly exciting because they help us to better understand the group of animals that gave rise to mammals. One interesting feature about this species in particular is the presence of grooves above its teeth, which may have been used to transmit venom."
Scientists identified the species from two partial skulls found in the Luangwa Basin, Zambia. They said it is related to the Russian Chthonosaurus, with the two species sharing several features, suggesting there was a dispersal route in the ancient supercontinent of Pangea: "The new taxon, along with its proposed relationship to Chthonosaurus, adds to a list of sister-group pairs of Wuchiapingian tetrapods in southern Gondwana and Laurasia, indicating that effective, though largely unknown, dispersal routes persisted in Pangea at least through early late Permian times."
Venomousness is rarely found in mammals with just a handful of species producing it – examples include the platypus and some shrews. The extinct therocephalian Euchambersia is thought to have been venomous but this was an anomaly among the group. Angielczyk said finding new species like Scarface is important to the study of mass extinctions in the future: "By studying the effects of the Permian-Triassic mass extinction and the subsequent recovery, we can apply the lessons we learn to the mass extinction being caused by humans today."