Painful Truth: Our uncles, the wolf-lizards

Weird near-mammals the size of rhinos, with razor-sharp sabre teeth.

Everyone loves dinosaurs. But you know, there were plenty of other big, scary, weird critters that lived on this planet before we got here.

That’s why today we’re going to talk about gorgonopsids.

Gorgonopsids – gorgons, for short – are actually part of the mammal family tree. About 275 million years ago, a group called the therapsids evolved. They were more mammal-like than previous critters, with their legs held underneath their bodies, rather than splayed out to the sides like lizards or crocodiles.

The gorgons were carnivores that were one branch of the therapsids. They were very successful, evolving into species ranging from the size of cats up to critters like Inostrancevia, which was up to 11.5 feet long, with a two-foot long skull. That’s a carnivore roughly the size of a rhino.

Their bodies sort of like a hybrid of a wolf and a really large lizard. There’s nothing living today that looks quite like a gorgon.

The heads of gorgons are huge for their size. They don’t really shrink down into a snout, so you wind up with a boxy skull, kind of like a squashed shoe box full of huge teeth. The biggest teeth were a set of sabres at the front of the jaws.

We can imagine gorgons waiting for prey – big reptilian or proto-mammalian plant eaters – and then lunging in to slash and stab with those fangs.

We don’t know much about gorgons’ outsides, since we’re just going off the evidence of fossilized bones. Some therapsids likely had fur, but did gorgons? Or were they scaled? Or were they just covered in tough hide? We don’t know yet.

Some of the gorgons’ cousins would eventually go on to become the ancestor to all modern mammals, but the gorgons themselves would die out in the Permian extinction, also known as the Great Dying. As you can tell by the name, a lot of critters dropped dead when that hit, 250 million years ago.

Gorgonopsids really need better public relations.

They were weird, and so were the prey animals they hunted. They’ve turned up in a few science fiction shows and a Walking With Dinosaurs spin-off, but they need their own movie, their own thriller novel.

Dinosaurs left behind their descendents, the birds. But gorgons left the Earth to their nephews and nieces, the modern mammals. They’re our fierce, giant-headed, sabre-toothed, rhino-sized uncles.