I am a palaeontologist living and working in Alice Springs, in the red centre of Australia. I moved here with my wife and three kids from Johannesburg, South Africa. I used to focus my research on dinosaurs, and it is fair to say I am still a dino nut but these days I work on fossils from the NT, be they turtles, tassie tigers or anything else. In my spare time I like to watch birds, catch beetles, lizards and snakes and generally find out as much about the species around me as I can.
Imagine you found this fossil. At first glance you might think it was some kind of ornamented cranial horn but a closer look would reveal that one end bore two articulation facets on a vaguely hockey-stick shaped head. These features identify the bone as the rib of a tetrapod. But the rib of what, exactly? The row of knobs along the dorsal surface is very unusual and does not bear a close resemblance to any other known tetrapod.
These questions were raised when some of these unusual ribs were unearthed at a locality in middle Triassic sediments of southern Brazil by Father Cargnin, a preist with an interest in palaeontology. Since these ribs were isolated in an assemblage of mixed vertebrates, little could be said about their affinities. About all one could surmise is that they belonged to some exceptionally weird tetrapod. The answer came in 1989 when Father Cargnin found a partial articulated skeleton, with a skull, of the beast with the knobbed ribs at a second locality. It turned out to be a traversodontid cynodont, one of a group of plant-eating close mammal relatives that were common across the globe in the Middle and Late Triassic. Ranging in size between something that was roughly rabbit-sized up to something slightly larger but lower slung than a wolf. As advanced cynodonts they had much of the mammalian adaptive toolkit,probably including endothermy and a furry pelt, but lacked the defining dentary-squamosal jaw joint.
A reconstruction of Exaeretodon a typical traversodontid. From Wikipedia
Considering the unusual nature of the ribs, it is actually remarkable how unremarkable the rest of the animal is. The skull is much like that of any other traversodontid (there are some minor differences in skull proportions and the thickness of the skull roof).
The skull of Protuberum, above (taken from Reichel et al. 2009) in comparison to another traversodontid Massetognathus , below (taken from Romer 1967). Anyway it has taken some time but Father Cargnin’s lumpy traversodontid has finally been published. It was given the name Protuberum cabralensis by Reichel et al. in the most recent issue of Palaeontology. The entire ribcage of Protuberum from the neck to the hips (and the dorsal edges of the hips themselves) was covered in these lumpy excrescences. The lumps are protrusions of the bone itself, not fused on dermal bones as one would expect since no cynodont is known to be armoured with dermal bones. Nonetheless these lumps would have protruded abone the level of the skin during life and were probably covered in tough, leathery or even keratinized skin. It would have made for an unusual looking animal, particularly if these lumps protruded above a layer of fur. The purpose of the knobs seems to have been defensive, perhaps against predators (they shared the earth with big crocodile relatives called rauisuchians ) or perhaps against each other.
Romer, A.S. (1967) The Chanares (Argentina) Triassic Reptil Fauna. III. Two new gomphodonts, Massetognathus pascuali and M. teruggii. Breviora 264: 1-25.
MÍRIAM REICHEL, CESAR LEANDRO SCHULTZ, MARINA BENTO SOARES (2009). A NEW TRAVERSODONTID CYNODONT (THERAPSIDA, EUCYNODONTIA) FROM THE MIDDLE TRIASSIC SANTA MARIA FORMATION OF RIO GRANDE DO SUL, BRAZIL Palaeontology, 52 (1), 229-250 DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-4983.2008.00824.x