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Predator ruled before dinosaurs

Voltaire Neto

The mammal-like creature known as Pampophoneus biccai takes on a plant-eating Paleozoic creature called a pareiasaur in this artist's conception.

Paleontologists have found the skull of a weird but deadly mammal-like monster that terrorized Brazil long before dinosaurs ruled the earth.

The specimen is from the Permian period, more than 260 million years ago. The complete skull measures about 13 inches (35 centimeters) in length and was discovered in 2008 during a scientific excavation on a farm in the pampas region of Rio Grande do Sul in southern Brazil. The skull came from a creature that was part of a class of long-extinct vertebrates called dinocephalian therapsids, which predated the dinosaurs and were distantly related to mammals.

In an interview with Discovery News, lead researcher Juan Carlos Cisneros of Brazil's Federal University of Piaui said the critter was a cross between "a tiger and a Komodo dragon, if you can imagine that." A report about the fossil was published online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The creature has been dubbed Pampaphoneus biccai: The Latin-derived genus name roughly translates as "pampas killer," and the species name pays tribute to Jose Bicca, the landlord of the farm where the skull was found. The fossil site was identified through an analysis of satellite imagery from Google Earth.

Juan Carlos Cisneros

A photo and a drawing show the skull discovered on a Brazilian farm.

Cisneros told me in an emailed statement that the find is important for two reasons: First, Pampaphoneus is the first Paleozoic terrestrial carnivore discovered in South America. Combining this find with earlier discoveries of plant-eaters from the same time frame will help paleontologists "picture a more complete ecosystem during the Permian period," the statement said.

Second, the skull suggests that this South American species was a close relative to similar dinocephalians previously found in Russia and South Africa. That supports the idea that therapsids were able to disperse easily from one part of the Pangaea supercontinent to the other, during an age when most of Earth's modern-day land masses were linked together.

The therapsids were dealt a heavy blow 250 million years ago in an extinction event known as the "Great Dying." During the Triassic period that followed, they gave way to the dinosaurs — but their distant relatives in the mammalian tribe once again rule the earth.

Update for 7:51 p.m. ET: Brian Switek adds to the Permian picture in his Wired Science posting on the "Terrible Heads."

More about the days before the dinosaurs:

In addition to Cisneros, the authors of "Carnivorous Dinocephalian from the Middle Permian of Brazil and Tetrapod Dispersal in Pangaea" include Fernando Abdala, Saniye Atayman-Güven, Bruce Rubidge, A.M. Selâl Sengör and Cesar Schultz.

Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.