A bear-dog hybrid weighing the equivalent of 40 bowling balls is probably not what you’d want to meet while on a skiing holiday in France.
Fortunately, these fearsome carnivores became extinct around 7.5 million years ago, but a brand new species has only just been discovered by palaeontologists.
A fossilised lower jaw of a bear dog, or amphicyonid, was dug up in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques department of south western France in 1993.
Palaeontologists from the Natural History Museum Basel found the jawbone had a unique lower premolar, suggesting it belonged to a genus of bear dog never seen before.
The team named the species Tartarocyon, which they claim weighed approximately 50 stone (200 kg).
The Tartarocyon jawbone comes from 1212 million-year-old marine deposits that were examined in the small French community of Sallespisse. Unlike other amphicyonidae specimens, it has a unique fourth lower premolar which is important for determining species and genera.
A fossilised lower jaw of a bear dog, or amphicyonid, (pictured in occlusal, lingual and labial views) was dug up in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques department of France in 1993. Scale bar is 5 cm
Comparison of the mandible and fourth lower premolar for several European amphycionids, or bear dogs. The red circle indicates the premolar position. The scale bar is 5 cm for the mandibles but the premolars are not to scale. Top left is the mandible of the Tartarocyon
WHAT ARE BEAR DOGS?
The Amphicyonidae family, colloquially known as ‘bear dogs’, are an extinct family of terrestrial carnivores
They first appeared in North America in the middle Eocene around 45 million years ago
Members of the family range from as small as 11 lb (5 kg) to as large as 1,704 lb (773 kg) and evolved from wolf-like to bear-like body forms
They spread to Europe, Asia and Africa over a period of 22 million years, but had largely disappeared by the late Miocene, eight million years ago
They were among the first carnivorans to evolve large body size
Fossils of bear dogs have been found in North America and Europe
The first time humans came across an amphicyonid was when an Amphicyon fossil was discovered in the early 19th century.
The Amphicyon genus was named in 1836 by Édouard Lartet to mean ‘ambiguous dog’ but, along with other amphicyonids, it has since been nicknamed ‘bear dog’.
Fossils of this dog have since been found in Nebraska in North America and in France and Spain in Europe.
Other genera have also been discovered, leading to the Amphicyonidae family being categorised in 1886.
Members of the family range from as small as 11 lb (5 kg) to as large as 1,704 lb (773 kg) and evolved from wolf-like to bear-like body forms.
Early amphicyonids, such as Daphoenodon, walked on their toes while many of the later and larger species walked on the soles of their feet.
They were obligate carnivores, meaning they ate meat exclusively as they are unable to digest plant matter properly, and first appeared in North America around 45 million years ago.
Over the following 22 million years they spread to become widespread fauna in Europe, Asia and Africa, but had largely disappeared by the late Miocene, eight million years ago.
It is thought that they came into competition with other species of dog who evolved similar body sizes and cranial and dental adaptations that led to their extinction.
Geographical position of the locality of Sallespisse where the jawbone was found. The light grey area represents the maximum of extension of the sea during the Serravallian period
Location of the Tartarocyon jawbone within the sediment of the Sallespisse outcrop where it was discovered. It was found in Blue Faluns of Orthez deposits
Palaeontologist Bastien Mennecart described the fossilised jaw of the new Tartarocyon in a paper published today in PeerJ.
The jawbone comes from 12.8 to 12 million-year-old marine deposits that were examined in the small French community of Sallespisse.
Unlike other amphicyonidae specimens, it has a unique fourth lower premolar which is important for determining species and genera.
Mennecart and co-authors Floréal Solé, Jean-François Lesport and Antoine Heitz named the species after Tartaro, a powerful, one-eyed giant from Basque mythology.
The legend of Tartaro is also known in Béarn, the region where the lower jaw was found.
THE LEGEND OF TARTARO
Tartaro is a one-eyed giant from Basque mythology, similar to the Greek cyclops
He is said to live in caves in the mountains and catches young people in order to eat them
The legend goes that two brothers sought shelter in a cave after a storm broke while they were out hunting
It was Tartaro’s cave, and he soon appeared with his flock of sheep, looked at the brothers and said ‘one for today and the other for tomorrow’
He cooked and ate the eldest brother and then went to sleep
While he was sleeping, the youngest brother stole Tartaro’s ring and then stuck the roasting spit in his only eye, blinding him
Tartaro started to search for the boy amongst his sheep, but he had put on a sheep’s skin and fled with his ring
Unfortunately, the ring started shouting ‘Here I am, here I am!’, alerting Tartaro to his whereabouts
Tartaro got out of his cave and started to run after the boy, who was trying to take off the ring
He found the ring was stuck, so when he arrived to the edge of a cliff, he cut off his finger and throw it down the cliff
Tartaro, following the ring’s shouting, fell off the cliff
The new species was named after Tartaro, a one-eyed giant from Basque mythology
Reconstruction of Tartarocyon feeding on a stranded dolphin along the Serravallian sea
Discoveries of fossilised terrestrial vertebrates that lived on the northern edge of the Pyrenees 13 to 11 million years ago are very rare.
The researchers told The National it was likely that the bear dogs would have been opportunistic, solitary animals similar to bears today, rather than running in packs like dogs.
They would have also hunted large prey, and patrolled the shoreline looking for carrion such as dolphin
The discovery of the lower jaw offers the opportunity to explore the development of European bear dogs against the background of known environmental events at this time.
This could help determine the cause of their extinction, whether competition from other species or climate change.
Crocodile-faced dinosaur unearthed on the Isle of Wight ‘may be largest land predator to roam Europe’: Two-legged spinosaur was 32ft long – the same as a London Bus
The remains of what may be the largest predatory dinosaur ever found in Europe have been unearthed on the Isle of Wight.
Paleontologists say the huge crocodile-faced dinosaur – which at 32.8ft (10 metres) long almost as big as a London Bus – lived 125 million years ago and would have weighed several tonnes.
The ‘giant killer’ was a member of the spinosaurids, the first dinosaurs known to swim, so may have been able to hunt in the water as well as on land.
It would have lived at the beginning of a period of rising sea levels and would have stalked lagoonal waters and sandflats in search of food.
Several prehistoric bones belonging to the ‘White Rock spinosaurid’ – named as such because of the geological layer in which the remains were found – were discovered on the island off the south coast of England.
They include huge pelvic and tail vertebrae and have since been analysed by scientists from the University of Southampton.
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The remains of what may be the largest predatory dinosaur ever found in Europe have been unearthed on the Isle of Wight. ‘White Rock spinosaurid’ is pictured in an artist’s impression