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Researchers discover ancient ‘giant lion’

Updated April 19, 2019

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AN artist’s rendition of the gigantic mammalian carnivore that lived 22 million years ago in Africa.—AFP
AN artist’s rendition of the gigantic mammalian carnivore that lived 22 million years ago in Africa.—AFP

WASHINGTON: When Ohio University integrative biologist Nancy Stevens peered into a drawer in the wooden cabinets on the top floor of a Nairobi museum in 2010, she saw a chunk of rock containing massive teeth and knew she had come across something important.

The overlooked fossils stored at the National Museums of Kenya belonged to one of the largest meat-eating mammals ever to walk the Earth, a beast called Simbakubwa kutokaafrika that stalked Africa 22 million years ago, according to research by Stevens and co-author Matthew Borths published on Thursday.

Bigger than any carnivorous land mammal alive today — even a polar bear — Simbakubwa’s skull was the size of a rhino’s, its eight-inch canine teeth as large as bananas. It weighed about a ton and was eight feet long snout to rump.

According to the research published in the Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology, the fossils were excavated around 1980 in western Kenya and never closely examined.

“Most of the specimens that I study are quite small, so you can imagine my surprise when I opened a drawer that I hadn’t examined yet, and saw the enormous teeth glinting up at me. The specimen had been collected decades before, and the team that discovered this fossil was more focused on other parts of the fauna, particularly primates,” Stevens said.

Simbakubwa was a member of a group called hyaenodonts that appeared 62 million years ago, four million years after the extinction of the dinosaurs paved the way for mammalian dominance, and went extinct nine million years ago.

“At first glance, it would have looked like a gigantic hyena or long-tailed wolf with a head that was a little too big for its body. I imagine something like the ‘wargs’ from ‘Lord of the Rings’,” said Borths, a Duke Lemur Centre palaeontologist, referring to fictional monstrous wolves.

Published in Dawn, April 19th, 2019