Garjainia put the ‘hyper’ in ‘hypercarnivore’

A head built for meat-eating.

Image source: Foth et al/Wikimedia Commons/Petekub/Shutterstock/Big Think
  • A new analysis of fossils from the 1950s reveals an awesome predator.
  • Pre-dating the dinosaurs, the erythrosuchids were voracious "hypercarnivores."
  • Think terrifying crocodiles on steroids.

This shape of its head is the giveaway. The massive jaws — not to mention "steak-knife" teeth — endowed it with the capacity to eat pretty much anything. Or anyone. If you're wondering how Garjainia would fare against a Tyrannosaurus Rex, don't bother. The apex predator lived some 250 million years ago, before the dinosaurs.

All in the ravenous family

Image source: Mark Witton, David J. Gower, P. John Hancox, Jennifer Botha-Brink, Andrey G. Sennikov, Richard J. Butler/Wikimedia Commons/Image Post/Shutterstock/Big Think

Garjainia is a member of the erythrosuchid family, which translates approximately to "red crocodiles." Fossils have been found in South Africa and Russia, and date from the early and middle Triassic. Garjainia was just under 10 feet long and looked not too different from our modern 300-pound Komodo dragons of Indonesia, which are also enthusiastic carnivores. The meat-eating West African Nile monitor lizards currently keeping Floridians on their toes are usually just under six feet long, by comparison.

It's worth noting that Garjainia wasn't the largest of the erythrosuchids — that honor, so far as we know, went to Erythrosuchus africanus, which had a 3.5-foot-long head, teeth as large as T. rex" and measured over 16 feet in length.

It's the sheer size of Garjainia's head that's led researchers to the assumption that they were hypercarnivores. Of course, evolution being characterized by random mutations, they might simply have had huge noggins. Lead author of research published in November 2019 in Royal Society Open Science, paleontologist Richard Butler says, "These animals had an outlandishly large head, and we don't know for sure why this was the case. We think it might have been linked to their role as the top predators in a number of Triassic ecosystems. Having a big, powerful head and bite is likely to be useful in capturing prey." Also their teeth. The "steak-knife" descriptor comes from London's Natural History Museum (NHM).

An intriguingly odd species

Russian expedition carrying first erythrosuchid fossils

Image source: V.G. Ochev, from archive of M.A. Shishkin

The first Garjainia fossil was found in Russia in the 1950s, followed by Vjushkovia triplicostata. While previously assumed to be examples of two different species, they were later grouped together as Garjainia prima.

Butler explained to NHM the appeal of erythrosuchids: "These are bizarre animals, but much about their biology remains unstudied. They presumably must have had very powerful neck muscles to support such a massive head, but detailed studies of their muscles have not yet been done." He adds, "There are lots of animals from this period of time that were bizarre and interesting but we don't know much about them at all."

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Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
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Experts are already predicting an 'active' 2020 hurricane season

It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

Image source: Shashank Sahay/unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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