Royal Society Publishing


A 251 million year old partial burrow cast containing an articulated skeleton of the mammal–like carnivore Thrinaxodon liorhinus is the oldest evidence for burrowing by a cynodont synapsid. The burrow cast comes from terrestrial flood plain sediments close to the Permian–Triassic boundary in the Karoo of South Africa. Together with those of the later cynodont Trirachodon, the Thrinaxodon burrow cast indicates that burrow–making was broadly distributed in basal synapsids and has a long history in non–mammalian synapsid evolution. A reconstruction of its appendicular skeleton in cross–section indicates that Thrinaxodon was able to adopt a facultatively mammalian stance within its burrow shaft. Burrows of cynodont design are more common in Triassic rocks than previously realized, and suggest that burrowing may represent an adaptive response by cynodonts to the environmental conditions associated with the mass extinction event that punctuated the end of the preceding Permian period. The widespread occurrence of burrowing among extant mammals implies that the ancient synapsid ability to burrow conferred a strong adaptive value in the evolution of Mammalia.

Royal Society Login

Log in through your institution