Paleo Profile: The Head of the Devil

The skull of Lende chiweta. From Kruger et al., 2015.
The skull of Lende chiweta. From Kruger et al., 2015.

You know a skull’s special when the researchers studying the fossil call it “the head of the devil”. And Lende chiweta, described by paleontologist Ashley Kruger and colleagues, lives up to the title. With large canines and a set of bosses jutting from its skull, this little protomammal probably looked scarier than it actually was in life.

Like the Lemurosaurus that recently caught my eye, Lende was a burnetiamorph. These protomammals are famous among Permian paleontologists for their strange headgear. What makes Lende special, though, isn’t so much its unusual ornamentation as where it was found.

Up until recently the published record of the strange and varied burnetiamorphs was dominated by finds from South Africa and Russia. Over the past few years, though, paleontologists have found these protomammals in Tanzania, Zambia, and now Malawi. These new finds, Kruger and colleagues write, hint that southern Africa was where these highly-ornamented protomammals originated before spreading through Pangaea to reach prehistoric Russia. Lende offers just that much more resolution to the emerging picture of how these Permian oddballs moved around the world just before the worst mass extinction of all time wiped them out.

The other side of the Lende chiweta skull. From Kruger et al., 2015.
The other side of the Lende chiweta skull. From Kruger et al., 2015.

Fossil Facts

Name: Lende chiweta

Meaning: Inspired by the skull’s nickname “the head of the devil”, the researchers drew from Malawi culture for the name Lende – a sinister figure portrayed by Cule wa Mkulu masked dancers. The species name chiweta refers to the Chiweta Beds where the fossil was found.

Age: Around 253 million years ago.

Where in the world?: Malawi, eastern Africa.

What sort of critter?: A protomammal belonging to a group called burnetiamorphs.

Size: Only the skull is known, and may be from a juvenile, so the animal’s full size is unclear.

How much of the creature’s body is known?: A nearly-complete skull and lower jaw.

Reference:

Kruger, A., Rubidge, B., Abdala, F., Gomani Chindebvu, E., Jacobs, L. 2015. Lende chiweta, a new therapsid from Malawi, and its influence on burnetiamorph phylogeny and biogeography. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. doi: 10.1080/02724634.2015.1008698

Previous Paleo Profiles:

The Unfortunate Dragon
The Cross Lizard
The South China Lizard
Zhenyuan Sun’s dragon
The Fascinating Scrap
The Sloth Claw
The Hefty Kangaroo
Mathison’s Fox
Scar Face
The Rain-Maker Lizard
“Lightning Claw”
The Ancient Agama
The Hell-Hound
The Cutting Shears of Kimbeto Wash
The False Moose
“Miss Piggy” the Prehistoric Turtle
Mexico’s “Bird Mimic”
The Greatest Auk
Catalonia’s Little Ape
Pakistan’s Butterfly-Faced Beast

4 thoughts on “Paleo Profile: The Head of the Devil

  1. Lende chiweta is a wonderful, highly significant new find. I hope that a complete skeleton of this creature will be discovered in the near future…Yes, I agree that this specimen may be a juvenile; there is something infantile about the skull, and in spite of his fangs and strange cranial protuberances, I suspect that the living Lende was a lot cuter than his remains would indicate!

    Proto-mammals need to be studied with more diligence and dedication; we still need to learn a lot about the transition from cynodonts to true mammals. Hope to see more articles concerning this on Phenomena.

  2. I treat animals daily that, without muscles, skin, and hair or feathers, would seem pretty unusual to us in our living state. Take away the muscles, skin, hair or feathers and our skulls and bones appear far different than the living animal,whatever the species may be. Many or all of us would have “skulls of the devil” to many who were still alive.

  3. I thought it was cute as soon as I saw the first picture of the skull!

    Mary said:
    “Yes, I agree that this specimen may be a juvenile; there is something infantile about the skull, and in spite of his fangs and strange cranial protuberances, I suspect that the living Lende was a lot cuter than his remains would indicate!”

    The disproportionately large orbit, and the relatively short snout, give it a juvenile appearance (which seems to be what our sense of cuteness — I eagerly await the announcement of the discovery of special cells in the human brain that respond to cuteness! — responds to.

    Thanks for showing us another therapsid!

    1. Hello Allen,

      I had the very same thoughts as you when I saw the illustration of the skull. Lende chiweta, far from seeming “devilish”, may have been simply “impish” in a nice, attractive way. The “cute” factor, as we suspect, must have been implanted by kind Mother Nature in higher sentient animal species, its purpose being to protect infant creatures from predator aggression. The great majority of young animals, from amphibians up, have that innocent, “cutie-pie” expression which seems to say: “Hi there! I’m just a wee baby; I won’t do anyone any harm; so please don’t hurt me”. Even fierce beasts that are not absolutely ravenous with hunger apparently respond to this “cute factor”. Ferocious carnivores which would not hesitate to attack adult animals often leave the wee ones in peace. Certain wild animals will even let human babies cuddle them.

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