Name: Ichibengops munyamadziensis
Meaning: The genus name is a combination of Bemba and Greek meaning “scar face”, while the species name is in reference to the Munyamadzi Game Management Area where the fossils were found.
Age: Upper Permian, around 255 million years ago.
Where in the world?: The Madumabisa Mudstone Formation of northern Zambia.
What sort of critter?: A eutherocephalian, or one of the protomammals that thrived prior to the worst mass extinction of all time.
Size: About the size of a small dog, such as Dachshund.
How much of the creature’s body is known?: Two partial skulls.
Claim to fame: Over 250 million years ago, before the “Age of Dinosaurs”, protomammals ruled the land. Some were saber-fanged predators. Others were beaked, tusked herbivores that seemed to be some cross between turtle and pig. Still others bore crazy headgear that they used to show off or pummel each other when showing rivals who’s boss. And the latest among their ranks to be discovered, cleaned up, and named is a dog-sized creature that may have had a venomous bite.
University of Utah paleontologist Adam Huttenlocker and colleagues named the little protomammal Ichibengops munyamadziensis. The inspiration for the title “scarface” came from a groove on the upper jaw. Why this protobeast had such a distinctive furrow on its face isn’t clear. The feature isn’t a pathology, and it could have been an attachment site for muscles, housed a sensory organ, or been occupied by a gland. Then again, Huttenlocker and coauthors note, the groove could have nestled a venom gland.
This isn’t as far-out as it might sound. Paleontologists have previously suggested that another protomammal, Euchambersia, was venomous on the basis of a divot on its skull associated with a groove in the canine tooth that could have delivered the deadly fluid. Unfortunately the front part of the Ichibengops skulls, including the canine teeth, haven’t been found yet, but they could hold the critical evidence for whether or not this little protomammal could subdue prey with venom.
But even though venom hypothesis was a springboard to the headlines, Ichibengops is important for other reasons. This little carnivore had a bony secondary palate – the shelf of bone that separates nose from mouth – and is the fourth or fifth example of this feature independently evolving in different protomammal lineages. And the fact that the closest relative of Ichibengops is a creature found in Russia, Cthonosaurus, hints at ancient, but as-yet-unknown, corridors that allowed Permian creatures to disperse between high- and low-latitude environments. In other words, Ichibengops is a reminder that no fossil stands alone. Each new piece, each new species, raises new questions and possibilities about what prehistoric life was really like.
Huttenlocker, A., Sidor, C., Angielczyk, K. 2015. A new eutherocephalian (Therapsida, Therocephalia) from the Upper Permian Madumabisa Mudstone Formation (Luangwa Basin) of Zambia. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. doi: 10.1080/02724634.2015.969400