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Scientists discover 'prehistoric killing machine' was a speed demon

Sneak attack! Anteosaurus would have terrorized its prey long before dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

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This reconstruction shows an Anteosaurus taking down an herbivorous Moschognathus.

Alex Bernardini (@SimplexPaleo)

Dinosaurs get all the glory, but there were some fantastic beasts roaming the planet long before dinosaurs came along. One of these animals, the big-jawed Anteosaurus, was thought to be sluggish, but new research shows it was likely a vicious and effective hunter.

The University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg in South Africa described Anteosaurus as "a ferocious hunter-killer" in a statement on Wednesday.

The hippopotamus-size Anteosaurus was a dinocephalian, which the university describes as "mammal-like reptiles." They thrived in Africa around 260 million years ago, but died out 30 million years before the first dinosaurs. 

Previous research into Anteosaurus suggested the animal was so heavy and slow that it may have had to live in water. The Wit University team created a 3D reconstruction of an Anteosaurus skull and discovered some surprising new data about its brain, body parts and likely hunting skills on land. It was not a slowpoke.  

Here's how an Anteosaurus skull compares with a human skull.

Wits University

"In creating the most complete reconstruction of an Anteosaurus skull to date, we found that overall, the nervous system of Anteosaurus was optimized and specialized for hunting swiftly and striking fast, unlike what was previously believed," said paleontologist Ashley Kruger.   

Kruger was a co-author of a paper on Anteosuaurus published online last month in the Acta Palaeontologica Polonica journal. The study shows how computer reconstructions can change what we know about long-extinct animals.

Said co-author Julien Benoit, "Even though Anteosaurus lived 200-million years before the famous dinosaur Tyrannosaurus rex, Anteosaurus was definitely not a 'primitive' creature, and was nothing short of a mighty prehistoric killing machine."