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Dicynodont Fossils Reveal 'Phantom' Mammal Coexisted With Dinosaurs

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Rediscovered remains from the collection of amateur paleontologist Alfred "Gogga" Brown have confirmed that tusked mammals with turtle-like beaks once lived alongside the dinosaurs.

These herbivores known as dicynodonts are actually older than their reptilian counterparts. They have been thought to exist before the dawn of the Mesozoic Era some 260 million years ago, and have been assumed as extinct 50 million years after during the close of the Triassic Period.

However, this estimation was challenged in the 1950s when some "phantom" footprints belonging to the 5-fingered creature were uncovered next to that of a dinosaur's in South Africa.

Such piece of evidence suggests that dicynodonts likely survived beyond the Triassic Period but like the rest of Brown's works, they never received any recognition.

Since then, the footprints have remained a paleontological mystery. For 60 years, it remained unanswered until Christian Kammerer, research curator of Paleontology at North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, decided to have another look at fossils believed to belong to a dinosaur.

Dicynodont Bones, Not Dinosaur Fossils

The remains have originally been excavated by Brown in South Africa during the 1870s. He then forwarded them to the Natural History of Museum in Vienna, Austria where they remained uncataloged for several decades.

The collection has never been thoroughly studied and there was a "general agreement" at that time that Brown's Late Triassic finds are nothing more than typical dinosaur bones.

Almost immediately, however, Kammerer spotted bones that undeniably resembled the jaws and arms of a dicynodont. As he continued inspecting the rest of the collection, he found even more parts of the mammal including its skull, limbs, and spine.

This is the first and only skeletal evidence of the ancient animal. Before it, paleontologists have wrongly pictured the dicynodont to be another lizard-like creature. They dubbed it the Pentasauropus incredibilis which literally means "the incredible five-toed lizard foot."

Recently, the name has been changed to commemorate the importance of the "phantom" footprints and Brown's paleontological contributions. The dicynodont has been officially named as Pentasaurus goggai or Gogga's five-toed lizard.

"Although we tend to think of paleontological discoveries coming from new fieldwork, many of our most important conclusions come from specimens already in museums," says Kammerer in a report.

More details about the mammal are found in a study published on March 2018 in the electronic journal Palaeontologia Africana.

Other Early Mammals In The Jurassic Period

The next mammals existed from 199 to 145 million years ago and are described to be tiny creatures feeding on plants and insects. An example is the late Triassic period's Adelobasileus which has a similar appearance to a shrew.

In 2011, Chinese scientists made a paleontological breakthrough when they discovered the remains of a mid-Jurassic creature named as Juramaia. Though tiny, it marks a significant find in the world of paleontology as it's the first placental mammal to ever be found.

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