Monday, 3 May 2010

The Triassic; the age of the giant toads?

Labyrinthodon was the name given to many of the strange furrowed tooth fossils of the Triassic period (128-213 million years ago) found during the 1800's. They were recognized by Richard Owen to be those of an amphibian, but because only the teeth and some other fragmentary remains had been found the reconstructions produced by artists of that time were highly inaccurate. Most thought that Labyrinthodon was toad like. A lot of amphibians today are frogs and toads, as a result of the poor resources at the time Owen assumed that Labyrinthodon and most other prehistoric amphibians were no different. We now know that Labyrinthodon was not a type of frog or toad, but was rather a more salamander like animal, however this external similarity does not imply a close relationship between Labyrinthodon and salamanders. In fact the two were quite distantly related.

Above; a modern day reconstruction of the Labyrinthodont Massospondylus.

Today you can still get up close and personal with Owen's giant toads in an exhibition of models representing what the Victorians thought prehistoric animals looked like. The models were made by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins during 1856 in the newly built Crystal Palace park. It was a long shot considering all that Hawkins had to go on were a few bones and teeth, and inevitably there were mistakes, many of the models are highly inaccurate. Next to a small pool surrounding the models is a group of Labyrinthodon; some lumpy and scaly, others smooth and moist, possibly to represent different species. They have long back legs and from the photos appear to be over a meter in length!

It does seem quite fanciful to think of the world being roamed by huge carnivorous toads and it is a shame that Labyrinthodon was in fact a rather unremarkable animal, but for one last time Owen's fantastic view of the Triassic period will be portrayed by a narrative accurate according to the views on the Triassic period during 1856:

It is a warm sunny day and a heard of warthog like reptiles called Dicynodon graze peacefully. As they sprawl awkwardly through the primitive ferns around them one begins to approach the nearby swampland. It has been 12 hours since they last drank and many have grown thirsty. Approaching the swamp the Dicynodons grow wary. Even though they are defended by enormous tusks and a thick bony shell these animals fear only one creature, and it lives here; in the lowland swamps. Other animals are drinking and feeding with no fear; the Rynchosaurus, a smaller reptile with a huge beak basks on a nearby rock as others in its heard root around in the shallows for horsetails and tubers. Convinced that there is no danger here the Dicynodons climb into the muddy flanks of a pool and scramble towards the water. By mid afternoon the Dicynodonts have quenched their thirst and are now approaching the horsetail patch. The Rynchosaurs scatter in front of the Dicynodonts, but that is not what they are evading. Just meters away and having scrambled from a nearby lake and across a headland, is a Labyrinthodon, the reason for the Dicynodons initial fear.

It hunkers down, edging closer. The Labyrinthodon knows that the Dicynodon have huge stomachs that drag along the ground and cannot run fast. It strikes, using its enormous hind limbs to thrust itself from the surrounding vegetation and into the Dicynodon heard. They panic, but are unable to get away. The Labyrinthodon grabs a Dicynodon, which begins to slash at it with its huge tusks, but it is no use. The Labyrinthodons warty hide is too tough. It bounds into the shallows with the Dicynodon held firmly in its wide jaws. Pushing back its head the Labyrinthodon swallows its prey whole, gulping it slowly down into its gullet to be digested. With a last roaring croak that echoes across the valley the Labyrinthodon's wide toothy face disappears into the muddy pond.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jurassic Albatros,
    I have written a blog entry on mastodonsaurus on my blog:
    and have used one of your pictures here. I hope this is o.k. - if not, please leave a comment or drop me an email and I'll of course remove them