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'Super Salamander' Species Discovered in Portugal

Mar 24, 2015 11:29 AM EDT

Scientists have discovered what they call a "super salamander" species in Portugal that was a top predator more than 200 million years ago, and it just may be one of the strangest creatures to ever terrorize the Earth.

The previously unknown creature is called Metoposaurus algarvensis, but its nickname better sums it up. It was more than two meters (6.5 feet) long and likely weighed as much as a human - pretty impressive for a salamander-like amphibian. Researchers describe its big, flat head, equipped with hundreds of razor-sharp teeth, as resembling a toilet seat that can snap shut and devour fish, other amphibians, mammals, and possibly even small dinosaurs.

"Most modern amphibians are pretty tiny and harmless. But back in the Triassic, these giant predators would have made lakes and rivers pretty scary places to be," study co-author Richard Butler, from the UK's University of Birmingham, told Live Science.

The distant relatives of this now extinct group of large amphibians include small salamanders, frogs and newts, but the beast is believed to have lived like modern-day crocodiles that feed on fish.

That's based on a fossil graveyard researchers at the University of Edinburgh found recently in an ancient lake bed in southern Portugal, which include skulls, arm, shoulder and backbones of several of these amphibians. Along with its characteristically toilet seat-like head and long body, it also had puny arms and legs, so it was unlikely able to move around much on land and would have spent most of its time in the water.

Metoposaurus lived during a remarkable time in Earth history about 220 to 230 million years ago, when all of the world's continents were joined together into a single landmass called Pangea. It was also during the period when dinosaurs first evolved and were on their way to dominance.

But after millions of years of stomping around the Earth and terrorizing everything in sight, it appears that climate change was the downfall of Metoposaurus. Researchers believe that many died at the site in Portugal when the lake that these animals inhabited dried up.

This creature wasn't the only casualty. Others belonging to the extinct group metoposaurid were also wiped out by a mass extinction event about 201 million years ago at the end of the Triassic period, which ended their reign and paved the way for the rise of the dinosaurs.

The new findings were published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

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