The impressive teeth of M. nananubis — which featured both meat-slicing, blade-like teeth and teeth designed for grinding — suggest that this carnivore could forage on fruits and seeds, in addition to consuming meaty flesh.
Hyaenodonts over time spread out of Africa and into Europe, Asia and North America. They were once a very successful and widespread bunch, and yet, as far as researchers know, they all died out and left no descendants. Their extinction remains a mystery.
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Borths and Seiffert suspect that tectonic and climatic changes that shook up the planet about 23 million years ago could explain the demise of hyaenodonts, which were rather small-brained. Changing currents at the time started to dry out many parts of the world, with grasslands starting to expand while forests contracted. The ancestors of today’s modern carnivores began to expand into territories that hyaenodonts once occupied.
“The modern African ecosystem with lions and zebras and open grasslands — what I call ‘The Lion King’ ecosystem — is actually a pretty recent phenomenon,” Borths said. “We are interested in the origins of African ecosystems, when we were dealing with ‘The Hyaenodont King.’”
M. nananubis could be at the center of such investigations, since we now know more about it than nearly any other African carnivore from the time between the extinction of dinosaurs and the arrival of modern carnivores, such as cat and dog relatives in Africa. Digital 3D models of the newly found meat eater will allow other scientists in future to make their own conclusions about its lifestyle and evolution.
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