The skull of Kerberos.
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From Solé et al., 2015.
The skull of Kerberos.

Paleo Profile: Kerberos langebadreae

Name: Kerberos langebadreae

Meaning: “Lange-Badré’s Hell-Hound” named for the mythical canine guardian of the underworld and paleomammologist B. Lange-Badré.

Age: Around 40 million years old.

Where in the world?: Tarn, France.

What sort of critter?: An archaic form of flesh-eating mammal called a hyaenodont, and, more specifically, a member of a lineage called hyainailourines.

Size: Over 300 pounds, making it the largest carnivorous mammal in Europe for its time.

How much of the creature’s body is known?: The skull, lower jaws, fibula, and elements of the feet.

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The lower jaws of Kerberos, showing off its bone-cracking back teeth. From Solé et al., 2015.

Claim to fame:
Plenty of noise has been made over the years over who was the largest flesh-ripping dinosaur of all time. It’s the sort of thing that makes magazine covers. But what about fossil mammals? Leaving out the whales – limits to size change in water – meat-eating beasts have repeatedly evolved sizes to rival those of today’s burly bears, and the latest entry in this paleontological subset is Kerberos langebadreae.

Back in Eocene times, about 40 million years ago, Kerberos was the biggest carnivore to stalk Europe. Based on relationships between tooth and skull size and body mass, Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences paleontologist Floréal Solé and colleagues have estimated that the predator would have weighed over 300 pounds. That’s not the record breaker, but, being in the lower range of what female grizzly bears weigh, the mammal still had a lot of heft. The handful of postcrania seem to support this. It seems as if Kerberos was plantigrade, or walked with a flat foot like a bear rather than on its tippy-toes like a cat.

But the carnivore’s size wasn’t the only reason you wouldn’t want to cross Kerberos. The mammal’s skull still preserves anatomical landmarks that indicate ample jaw muscles that would have created powerful slicing and crushing bites near the back of the jaw. Along with some of its close relatives, Kerberos might have been an accomplished scavenger as well as a hunter, able to crack bones much like today’s very distantly-related hyenas do.

Exactly what Kerberos ate, however, awaits the discovery of bite marks, fossil scat, and other clues that give away ancient diets. Solé and coauthors suspect that the carnivore could have fed on some of the larger, tapir-like herbivores of the time such as Lophiodon and Palaeotherium. With luck, future finds might show how Kerberos employed its fearsome dentition. For now, though, we can at least bestow on Kerberos the title of “King of Europe’s Dawn Jungle”.

For more from study co-author Matthew Borths, check out his podcast Past Time.


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