Prehistoric times would have been fun to live in for like five minutes. After that, you would probably be killed in any number of horrible ways. One of the most interesting ways to die would have been at the hands / fangs of a pre-mammalian reptile called the Euchambersia, which scientists believe to be the earliest known venomous animal.
Scientists at South Africa’s University of the Witswatersrand published this conclusion in a new study. The research team, led by Dr. Julien Benoit, was pleasantly surprised when they found evidence to prove that Euchambersia was the first venomous animal.
The Euchambersia was a kind of “therapsid,” a group of reptiles that would eventually evolve into the earliest mammals. Euchambersias and their fellow therapsids walked the planet well before the first dinosaurs showed up.
It first arrived on the scene around 260 million years ago. It was small, somewhat dog-sized. It likely developed venom as a defense mechanism against larger predators, as well as to aid it in hunting. It lived in the Karoo region of South Africa.
The Euchambersia evolved a “fossa” in its upper jaw, tucked behind a pair of large canines. The fossa produced venom that would be delivered through grooves in the animal’s bones and teeth during a bite.
These days, the most common venomous animal is still a reptile – snakes. But snakes didn’t evolve until around 93 million years after the Euchambersia.
Proving that the Euchambersia was the world’s first venomous animal was quite difficult. Because the venom glands didn’t survive fossilization, researchers had to lean on technology to reconstruct the animal’s anatomy. The Wits researchers, in conjunction with scientists from London’s Natural History Museum, used CT scans and 3D imaging methods to investigate the two known Euchambersia skulls.
The scientists described their findings as “stunning.” The Euchambersia skulls exhibited anatomy that clearly suggested that they were venomous. In addition to the topographical adaptations they found in the skull bones and teeth, they also discovered a previously unrecognized set of teeth that were equipped with sharp, venom-promoting ridges.
The Euchambersia, unlike modern snakes, would not have actively injected its venom into its victims. Instead, the venom would flow freely in their mouths and would be funneled into a bite through these anatomical features.
According to Dr. Benoit, the Euchambersia probably used the venom primarily for hunting instead of defense, as is the case for most contemporary venomous animals. It makes sense, considering that therapsids did eat prey larger than insects.