Published: August 19, 2015

“Scarface”: The Dachshund-sized Pre-mammal with a (Possibly) Venomous Bite

Kate Golembiewski, PR and Science Communications Manager, Public Relations

Alert

Two hundred and fifty-two million years ago, huge volcanic eruptions triggered a mass extinction bigger than the one that ended the dinosaurs, changing life on earth forever. Field Museum scientist Ken Angielczyk and his colleagues are now studying this event, the Permian-Triassic Extinction, to learn about how communities bounce back after falling apart. And one newly discovered ancient mammal relative is helping them get closer to their answers—meet “Scarface.”

Ichibengops munyamadziensis was a small carnivore that lived in what’s now Zambia in southern Africa around the time of this mass extinction. Its name comes from the local word for “scar”—ichibeng—and the Greek suffix –ops, meaning “face” (think Triceratops, whose name means “three-horned face”).

Ichibengops got its name for the grooves on its upper jaw—features that might hint at a venomous bite. Scientists have seen pits like this on the jaws of another ancient mammal relative, and that one had grooved fangs like those seen on modern venomous animals. They’ve hypothesized that those pits were for storing venom, and Ichibengops’s grooves might serve the same purpose. If it was venomous, it would be one of the only examples of a venomous mammal or mammal relative—the only ones today are vampire bats, platypuses, and some shrews.

So far, we only know Ichibengops by the two skulls discovered by Angielczyk and his team, but scientists can still put together an idea of what it looked like based on comparisons with more complete specimens of its close relatives. “It was probably the size of a small dog, like a dachshund, but with more sprawling limbs set out to the side. Its stance was a little more like a lizard, or even a bulldog,” explained Angielczyk. The photo at left shows a more complete skeleton of one of Ichibengops’s relatives in the collection of the Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town—it probably looked something like this. 

Even with just the two skulls, Angielczyk and his colleagues were able to identify Ichibengops as a totally new species. “We looked for unique characteristics that we saw in these specimens that weren’t present in other, similar species. The grooves in its jaw made it stand out,” said Angielczyk.

Ichibengops helps fill in the blanks of what animals were alive before, during, and after the Permian mass extinction. Small animals generally aren’t as well-preserved as large ones, and carnivores in general are a lot rarer than herbivores, so a small carnivore like Ichibengops was a big find.

Discovering a new species like Ichibengops can help us paint a clearer picture of how evolution and extinction work—including the mass extinction that we’re undergoing right now. “Knowing what species were alive, and where, helps us understand community structures before and after an extinction,” said Angielczyk. “Finding an animal like Ichibengops improves the detail with which we can know those communities.”

Image credits: © Adam Huttenlocker; © Ken Angielczyk (photo of Iziko South African Museum specimen SAM-PK-K7809)