280-million-year-old unknown amphibian fossils found in Piauí

This is the first time that animal skeletons of this period have been discovered throughout the southern hemisphere.

280 million years ago Piaui and Texas were not that far away. In fact, the two places were very close, separated only by a mountain range. As neighbors, it is natural that their fauna was very similar; Both were in the Gondwana megacontinent.

Since then, a lot has happened: dinosaurs have emerged, become extinct, a kind of ape has developed consciousness and has grown smarter to the point where, from the height of its self-proclaimed human title, it has decided to study the history of its planet until farther than he could.

Artistic conception of the habitat where the discovered amphibians lived: on the left Timonya and on the right Procuhy

They named this study paleontology. Now, in 2015, humans in Piauí discovered three species of amphibians that lived in a crystalline lake on the Piaui side of the mountain range. These humans filled a historical gap.

"No terrestrial fauna of this age was known throughout the southern hemisphere."
Juan Cisneros, paleontologist

"No terrestrial fauna of this age was known throughout the southern hemisphere," says Professor Juan Cisneros, one of the humans responsible for the discovery. Juan and his team found three previously unknown species of amphibians. Let's go to the formal presentations: Timonya Annae It was an animal with a long body, very flexible spine and short limbs. These characteristics indicate that he moved with meandering movements, like that of a snake, and that he rarely left the lake to venture into the mainland, as his limbs would not support his weight out of the water.

It was the smallest of the three - 20 to 40 cm in length - and also what is best known about: 20 fossils were found at the site. Its name was chosen in honor of the place where it was discovered, the city of Maranhão of Timon.

Skull and skeleton part of the Timonya anneae

The other is the Procuhy nazarienis, a close relative of Timonya, twice his size. Of it, only one skull and one jaw were located so far. O Procuhy has Nazariensis as a surname also because of the city that occupies this region of the old lake: Nazarena, in Piauí. Both species are likely to be distant cousins ​​of salamanders.

The third fossil is the least complete, so much so that it will only have a scientific name when more information is collected. What you can tell for now is that he was five feet long and probably fed on the other two newly discovered amphibians. This species was found in the Piaui city of Monsenhor Gil.

Where once was this huge lake - or several smaller lakes, scientists have no way to dig - today is a quarry that extracts blocks for construction. What may sound like a conflict of interest may ultimately be helpful. “They are digging for us,” explains Juan. According to the professor at the Federal University of Piauí, this coexistence "could be better, more oriented", but it can still yield good results. "If it weren't for their digging, we would never have found what we found."

Field team looking for fossils in Nazária, Piauí

Although the three amphibians lived in a lake, they are considered part of the terrestrial fauna because they did not live in an ocean - the technical name for this group is continental fauna, explains Juan, who considers that there are three main points of the discovery: we're talking the first fossils of continental fauna in the southern hemisphere of the Permian period; We are talking about another confirmation that the animals that inhabited the present southern United States bear many similarities with the animals that lived in what is today the region of Piauí and, finally, we are talking about the confirmation of a hitherto unlikely hypothesis: in the beginning In the Permian period, life was already thriving in South American lands, at least in northern and northeastern Brazil.

There were doubts about this because during the carboniferous period just prior to the Permian there was global glaciation - the planet was colder at that time. This coupled with the fact that the whole continent was closer to the South Pole, at a time when “Teresina was at the same latitude as Rio de Janeiro”, raised suspicions about the possibility that this region has a vibrant fauna.

The expedition team had seven people, but it was Juan himself who first met a fossil of Timonya Annae. But finding the fossil is only the beginning of a long endeavor: it was only after a year of research that it was clear to the group that what they had been holding since 2011 was a scientific discovery, and the study that brings together all the details of the discovery was only published in 2015.

Now the challenge is to understand how this mountain range between Texas and Piauí was pierced by animals - Juan says another challenge is related to the quarry that works on site: according to the teacher, it is quite possible that the subject of the master's degree of one of his students be based on future heritage education work to be done with students and quarry officials who would learn how to identify potential fossils.