A knobby-headed reptile named Bunostegos roamed around what is now the country of Niger 260 million years ago. Three odd skulls have recently been found of cow-sized reptile with large bumps on its head, larger than any other related animal.
This newly-discovered creature not only represents a new species, but is the first member ever found of a previously unknown genus. It belongs to the family of Pareiasaurs, herbivore reptiles who lived during the Permian Period, flourishing between 266-252 million years ago. Som eresearchers believe they were the ancestors of turtles.
Fossils of the long-extinct creature were discovered in northern Niger, in what is now part of the Sahara Desert.
The name Bunostegos means "knobby roof." Paraeiasaurs are known for having large bumps on their heads, but Bunostegos has the largest ever seen. Researchers believe that skin covered the ancient animal's horns in the same way it does for giraffes today.
"We can't say for sure, but it is most likely that the bony knobs on the skull of pareiasaurs did not serve a protective function. They vary quite markedly in size and shape between different species, with some species lacking prominent knobs entirely, so I think that they were purely ornamental. The most probable use was for inter-specific (between species) or intra-specific (within species) recognition," Linda Tsuji of the University of Washington in Seattle said.
At that time, the continents were all huddled together in a super-continent named Panagea. Because all the dry earth was connected, species of plants and animals flourished across the land. However, there likely existed a desert right in the middle of the supercontinent that was home to a unique collection of plants and animals not found elsewhere.
Study of the reptile fossils showed that it was closely related to older pareiasaurs, but not so closely related to contemporary species outside the central Pangean dry zone. This suggests millions of years of evolutionary isolation.
Although it would seem obvious why animals would not enter a desert, even to cross through it, there is also a good reason that animals in the desert would stay.
"[W]e suspect there was an oasis-type area [in the desert] that could support life. There was not much interchange into or out of that area." Tsuji said. The desert was too vast for the animals to venture far outside their watering hole.
Research surrounding the fossils was detailed in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.