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Lystrosaurus as drawn by willemsvdmerwe on Deviant Art

Let’s escape today’s world and visit an endearing little friend from down under! This sausage-shaped creature was neither a reptile nor a mammal and it lived in what is now Antarctica. The creature’s name is Lystrosaurus, and it has been in the news recently because scientists analyzed its banded tusks and realized that it most likely hibernated during the dark times of winter.

This information is remarkable because Lystrosaurus lived in the Triassic Period–about 250 million years ago. As you might imagine, the world of a quarter of a billion years ago was very different than that of today. Not only had life just experienced the most catastrophic mass die-off in planetary history (the poorly understood end Permian mass-extinction, which ushered in the age of the dinosaurs), but the continents were all annealed together in one huge super continent, Pangea. Even though the contnents were in different places, the land which is now Antarctica was still by the South Pole.

During the time of Pangea, the world was much hotter than now, yet the axis of the Earth was not terribly different–so South Pole winters grew dark. This was a problem for Lystrosaurus, since its dentition indicates it lived on tubers, roots, and vegetation (and other things) which it grubbed up with its cute little tusks. When the world darkened every year, it became hard for lystrosaurus to find food, and so it slumbered.

Despite its dinosaur-like name, Lystrosaurus was a dicynodont therapsid, a sort of proto-mammal which flourished in the late Paleozoic and the early Mesozoic (before dinosaurs monopolized the scene).

To my eyes there is something appealing about the portly dog-sized lystrosaurus, and it amuses me to imagine it dozing through a dark foggy Pangea winter before awakening to run around gobbling up tree fern roots and weird amphibians with tombstone heads. Life has showed up in some strange and remarkable forms over the long years but certain habits and behaviors reappear again and again!

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