Sarkastadon was one of the largest land mammal carnivores of all time!
Sarkastodon Scientific Classification
- Scientific Name
- S. henanensis, S. mongoliensis
Sarkastodon Conservation Status
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The Sarkastadon genus was comprised of massive Creodonts, an order of animals that have since gone extinct. Most Creodonts were small and would have been the size of small dogs whereas Sarkastadon would have stood a few inches taller than the largest polar bears on earth.
There are no animals left on earth that are similar to Sarkastadons, although parts of them would have looked similar to animals that we know today. They lived roughly 49 to 37 million years ago during the Late Eocene Epoch, but paleontologists have carved a lot of insight out of the limited fossil remains discovered.
Description & Size
Sarkastodon means “meaty tooth.” This name refers to the size of its teeth as well as the fact that its teeth were equipped to dig into meaty prey. Another interpretation of the name is “flesh-tearing tooth.”
Sarkastadon is named after its teeth likely because teeth, skulls, and jaw bones are all that paleontologists have discovered. There’s a lot that researchers can gather from dental remains, however. We know that Sarkastadon was a member of the Creodonts.
This is an order of animals that split from the order Carnivora and branched off into two respective groups called Hyaenodonta and Oxyaenodonta (sometimes called Oxyaenidae). Although they are distinct from the orders of cats, dogs, weasels, and bears, these animals would have had similar ancestors and occupied similar positions in ecosystems.
As a result, many of the Hyaenodonts and Oxyaenodonts were the size of dogs, had sharp canine teeth, and would have had similar phenotypic characteristics. In other words, their fur, facial features, posture, gait, and style of movement would have looked vaguely familiar. In most cases, a modern human seeing an Oxyaenodont would think “What kind of terrifying dog is that?!”
A Note on Creodonts
Interestingly, Creodonts are some of the first mammals to emerge and thrive after the age of the dinosaurs. During the Eocene, they were populous and dominant around the earth. While researchers tend to believe that these animals are all related, there is still a lot of evidence to be found.
The waters of this taxonomic group are muddied by the fact that it’s known as a “wastebasket taxon.” This means that some uncategorized fossil discoveries get attributed to Creodonta without enough evidence to confidently place them there.
So, the Oxyaenodonta and Hyaenodonta families might include some animals that were altogether different from the rest. Sarkastodon could be one of these animals, although the dominant understanding is that it was a member of the Creodont order, and was the largest member of the order ever to exist.
Color, Weight, Length, and More
If you were to see the massive frame, long tail, and lumbering movement of the Sarkastodon, though, your instincts would kick in and you’d probably hightail it in the other direction. This is because Sarkastodon was one of the largest carnivorous mammals ever to roam the earth. Researchers believe that it reached the upper size limit possible for terrestrial carnivores.
Estimates place Sarkastodon’s weight somewhere around 1,800 pounds! That’s about twice the size of the average polar bear. The largest polar bear on record was roughly 2,200 pounds, but odds are that there were a few Sarkastodon outliers who would put that number to shame.
The animal was also roughly 9 feet long and might have reached anywhere from 4 to 6 feet in height while standing on all fours. This gives it roughly the same frame as a polar bear.
Using a polar bear as a guide for the way Sarkastodon looked is only useful in terms of weight and length, however. In coloration and features, this animal was much different. Its color would likely have been brown, with short fur covering its body from the head all the way down to its long, meaty tail.
Reconstructions of skeletal remains show us an animal whose large skull and dominant canines were offset by a long spine that extended out eight feet and ended with a tail roughly half the size of its body.
In terms of the way Sarkastodons looked, they would look something like a bear, big cat, otter, dog, and weasel combined. Recreations of the animal (and many of the Oxyaenidae, like Machaeroides) suggest that these animals were truly composed of aspects of many of the modern mammals that we know and love.
The difficulty is that there are no members left in the Creodont line to compare with Sarkastodon.
Diet – What Did Sarkastodon Eat?
It’s believed that Sarkastodon was a “hypercarnivore.” This means that it gets most, if not all of its nourishment from meat. An animal that weighs 1,800 pounds requires a lot of meat to sustain itself, particularly if it’s not supplementing its diet with plants.
Whether or not Sarkastodon ate plants is up in the air. It’s likely that they would have nibbled on some vegetation, as many terrestrial carnivores of that size do. That said, there would have been ample meat in the environment for Sarkastodon to feed on.
Mostly, its diet would have consisted of the large ungulates that roamed during the Eocone in China, and Mongolia. These animals would have been the ancient descendants of rhinoceroses, horses, and cattle. We know that Sarkastodon was capable of taking down such massive prey.
Its teeth were fine-tuned for cracking bones. Similar to the modern hyaena, Sarkastodon had a fierce set of canines backed up by premolars made for tearing and hearty, smashing molars to finish the job. The result is dentition that could not only bite into a rhinoceros but also effectively grind that tough meat down.
It’s unlikely that the Sarkastodon would have been running animals down on the plains. Its large frame and plantigrade style of locomotion would have made it much slower than the animals that it hunted. Instead, it was an ambush predator.
These were creatures that used cunning, wits, patience, and typically a characteristic method of attack when capturing their prey. In order to maintain energy, most ambush predators find a strategic waiting point and unleash their force at the opportune time.
This is particularly useful when your prey consists of fast-running ungulates. While plantigrade locomotion is a disadvantage in terms of speed, it’s a benefit when you’re rooting yourself and pressing into a prey source. Humans, bears, and many other mammals utilize this style of walking.
Feet firmly planted into the ground, you could support a lot more weight than you could if you were standing on your nails like an ungulate. So, a combination of force, strength, and deadly teeth allowed Sarkastodon to sustain itself by eating a diet of mostly meat.
It’s also worth noting that the emergence of land mammals as a dominant force happened around the Eocene, a few million years after dinosaurs were knocked from the throne as kings of the world. Mammals were small, living in the shadows for millions of years, and took a long time to grow.
Most mammals were a little smaller than we’d like to imagine them, so the 1,800-pound Sarkastodon likely held a very dominant spot in whatever ecosystem it entered.
Habitat – When and Where Sarkastodon Lived
As far as we know, Sarkastadon lived only in the areas of China and Mongolia. It’s very possible that it would have migrated to the east or even the west toward the land bridge in certain instances. It occupied this land during the Eocene Epoch, which took place from 56 to 33 million years ago.
Global temperatures were high around this time. One explanation for this is that Australia and Antarctica were still joined, and the warm ocean currents around the equator merged with the frigid waters surrounding Antarctica, keeping global temperatures slightly warmer than were after Antarctica split.
A result of the warm climate was the presence of tropical forests in much of the world, particularly in Southeast Asia and China. In stretches of Eurasia, however, there were plains and expansive areas that allowed ungulates and other herbivores to roam and graze. Sarkastodon likely straddled these two worlds, the rainforests and the open areas around them.
S. henanensis migrated south into what would have been a tropical forest, whereas S. mongoliensis remained further north in what was likely a more expansive area. There would have been spots of forest and grassland all around these regions, but it’s not certain where Sarkastodon spent the majority of its time.
Threats And Predators
There’s only one animal that might have posed a serious threat to Sarkastodons. A massive mammal known as Andrewsarchus was quite possibly the largest predatory land mammal. There’s only one skull discovered, so there’s very little known about Andrewsarchus, but the massive wolf-like skull comes from the late Eocene and would’ve sat atop an animal that weighed almost two tons.
That’s almost twice the size of Sarcastodon. To make things more interesting, the wolf-like skull is believed to come from an even-toed ungulate, placing it in the order of pigs and sheep rather than dogs and wolves!
This animal’s skull was discovered in Mongolia as well. This would have been a real threat to Sarkastodons, although there weren’t likely many other animals that would’ve disrupted it. While fossil evidence is always emerging to reveal new predators, Sarkastodon would have been largely unbothered as far as the current evidence goes.
Discoveries & Fossils – Where was Sarkastodon Found?
All Sarkastodon fossils were discovered in regions of eastern Asia. More specifically, three specimens were found in modern Mongolia, whereas one was discovered roughly 1,000 miles away in eastern China.
The three specimens grouped together (only a few hundred miles apart) in Mongolia comprise the species known as S. mogoliensis. The other individual discovered in China belongs to a different species called S. henanensis.
These discoveries consist of teeth, jaw bones, and skull fragments.
Extinction – When Did It Die Out?
It’s believed that Sarkastodon was eliminated or deeply impacted by the Eocene-Oligocene extinction event. This event marked the transition between the end of the Eocene Epoch and the beginning of the Oligocene.
The extinction event isn’t known to include any volcanic eruption or meteor collision with earth. Instead, the primary driver of the extinction was climate change. That said, there are a few potential meteor strikes that could be associated with the extinction event, including the Chesapeake Bay Impact Crater, although these aren’t confirmed causes.
This period is referred to as the “great break” in mammalian life, as there’s a drop-off in the fossil record. Species started to die out or split into diverging groups, driven apart by the need for new climates and shaped by the environments they found.
The climate cooled considerably at this time, roughly 34 million years ago. It’s believed that Sarkastodon was driven to extinction due to a lack of viable prey sources in the wake of shrinking vegetation and the corresponding loss of herbivores animals.
Similar Animals to Sarkastodon
- Polar Bear – The polar bear is a good animal to measure Sarkastodon’s size against, although there’s no real relationship between the two animals.
- Machaeroides – Machaeroides was a smaller member of the Oxyaenodont family, and might have borne a resemblance to Sarkastodon.
- Andrewsarchus – This was one of few large mammals competing with Sarkastodon for prey in Mongolia during the Eocene.
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Sarkastodon FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)
What was Sarkastodon’s size?
Sarkastodon might have weight around 1,800 pounds. It also would have reached lengths of around 9 feet from head to tail. These estimates are based on the size of the skull and jaw fragments found in Mongolia and eastern China.
What kind of animal was Sarkastodon?
Sarkastodon was a member of the Creodont family. This order of animals split from Carnivora and branched out into two families, Oxyaenodonta and Hyaenodonta, respectively.
All Creodonts were distinguished by their carnivorous teeth. Sarkastodon was a member of the Oxyaenodonta family.
How did Sarkastodon die?
It’s believed that Sarkastodon died out in the wake of the Eocene-Oligocene Extinction Event. This period was marked by significant climate change, reducing the vegetation and eliminating food for the herbivores that Sarkastodon used as prey sources.
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- The Rise of Mammals, Available here: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/rise-mammals
- Andrewsarchus - the World's Largest Predatory Mammal, Available here: https://www.thoughtco.com/andrewsarchus-the-worlds-largest-predatory-mammal-1093356
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