Researchers discover ancient giant 'lion' Simbakubwa

Simbakubwa jaw

Simbakubwa jaw

Bigger than any carnivorous land mammal alive today - even a polar bear - Simbakubwa's skull was the size of a rhino's, its 20-centimetre canine teeth as large as bananas.

Known as "Simbakubwa kutokaafrika", the "big African lion" was likely at the top of the food chain in Africa, researchers said in a statement. The team were able to examine portions of the creature's skull, its jaw and parts of its skeleton and discovered it is the oldest specimen of a group of mammals known as hyaenodonts.

"Opening a museum drawer, we saw a row of big meat-eating teeth, clearly belonging to a species new to science", says study lead author Borths.

According to the research published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, the fossils were excavated around 1980 in western Kenya and never closely examined. The 22-million-year-old fossils were unearthed in Kenya decades ago as researchers canvassed the region searching for evidence of ancient apes.

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A Simbakubwa kutokaafrika, a very big mammalian carnivore that lived 22 million years ago in Africa and was larger than a polar bear. "I imagine something like the "wargs" from Lord of the Rings", said Borths, a Duke Lemur Center paleontologist, referring to fictional monstrous wolves. At the same time, the ancient relatives of modern day cats, hyenas and dogs began to filter south.

Simbakubwa kutokaafrika, a enormous carnivore known from most of its jaw, portions of its skull, and parts of its skeleton, was a hyaenodont that was larger than a polar bear. "Like a saber-toothed cat, Simbakubwa was a hypercarnivore, but cats only have one set of specialized, meat-slicing teeth on each side of the jaw". When Africa connected with Eurasia the continents changed ocean currents and global climate patterns, the uplift of the East African Rift changed precipitation patterns, and closed forest habitats started to become more open and grassy. "Simbakubwa is a window into a bygone era". But, they say, they still have much to learn about why these giant meat eaters went extinct-and what they can teach us about the risks to modern carnivores. "As ecosystems shifted, a key predator disappeared, heralding Cenozoic faunal transitions that eventually led to the evolution of the modern African fauna".

"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", said Daniel Marenda, a program director at the National Science Foundation, which funded this research.

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