You wander a museum, glance at some dinosaur bones and think that one skull looks a little funny. You’ve discovered a new species.
Sure, that sounds unlikely. But that’s what happened when a North Carolina paleontologist discovered two new species of protomammals, mammal-like reptiles that existed millions of years before dinosaurs, while visiting a small Russian museum.
Almost an entire skull of the saber-toothed Gorynychus sat unidentified in the Vyatka Paleontological Museum in Kirov, Russia, until Christian Kammerer, research curator of paleontology at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, stopped by for a short visit.
Kammerer previously had discovered 15 new species before finding Gorynychus and Nochnitsa, the other species he identified at Vyatka.
“I would guarantee you there are thousands of undescribed species in museum collections,” Kammerer said. “Most new species are found in museum collections for the sole reason that there are literally millions of species on earth today and many more in the fossil record. When you’re going out and collecting specimens, you won’t know those things. The people in the museum knew they were protomammals but they didn’t know they were new species.”
Protomammals lived during the Permian period, which ended around 252 million years ago when a massive event killed off 90 percent of species on Earth, Kammerer said.
The new fossils prove that a smaller mid-Permian event switched up the global pecking order.