IT LOOKS like something out of a bad monster movie, has a head like a toilet seat and is the length of a small car – and could eat a dinosaur for breakfast.

Meet the super salamander, which has just been discovered by a team led by Edinburgh University palaeontologist Dr Steve Brusatte.

“It’s a weird animal; a big alien type of thing like a salamander on steroids,” he said.

While closely related to modern-day salamanders and frogs, the good news is that this scary-looking predator – Metoposaurus algarvensis – lived more than 200 million years ago, at the same time as the first dinosaurs.

“It was the type of fierce predator that the very first dinosaurs had to put up with if they strayed too close to the water, long before the glory days of T rex and Brachiosaurus,” added Brusatte.

The new species was discovered in a large bed of bones where up to several hundred of the creatures may have died when the lake they inhabited dried up. Only a fraction of the site – about four square metres – has been excavated so far, and the team is continuing work there in the hope of unearthing new fossils.

The bones are buried on the site of an ancient lake in Portugal and while it is hard to imagine the two-metre-long salamanders slinking around Scotland, Brusatte is certain that they did.

At the time Scotland was joined to the rest of Europe in a supercontinent and – possibly even harder to believe – was very hot and dry.

Brusatte thinks it is only a matter of time before evidence of them in Scotland is found.

“It certainly would have been here in Scotland. We have fossils of roughly the same age from

Elgin although there are no big amphibians, but I am sure someone will find a fossil of them some time.

“Portugal is not too far away and at the time Scotland would have been a whole lot warmer. These giant-size salamanders lived there when the world was really hot and much of the interior was desert. It was not a pleasant time to live but an interesting time. It was a weird world back then – kind of like a laboratory with so many interesting groups of animals.”

The newly discovered species lived at the same time as the first dinosaurs and was part of a wider group of primitive amphibians that were widespread at low latitudes 220 to 230 million years ago.

The super salamander is the first member of the group to be discovered in the Iberian Peninsula and shows this group of amphibians was more geographically diverse than previously thought.

Fossil remains of species belonging to the group have been found in parts of modern-day Africa, Europe, India and North America. Differences in the skull and jaw structure of the fossils found in Portugal revealed they belong to a separate species.

“Most modern amphibians are pretty tiny and harmless. But back in the Triassic [period] these giant predators would have made lakes and rivers pretty scary places to be,” said Dr Richard Butler, of the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Birmingham.

When the supercontinent of Pangea – which included all the world’s present-day continents – began to break apart 201 million years ago, the super salamanders and many other vertebrates were wiped out, paving the way for dinosaurs to become dominant.

“The dinosaurs became extinct when an asteroid hit Earth but they only got their start because the earlier mass extinction killed off their predators. What explains the dinosaurs’ survival is still one of the biggest mysteries of all,” said Brusatte.

The study, published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, was funded by the German Research Foundation and the National Science Foundation, the Jurassic Foundation, CNRS, Columbia University Climate Center and the Chevron Student Initiative Fund.

Dr Steve Brusatte will discuss his palaeontology work at a series of events at Edinburgh International Science Festival, which runs from April 4 to 19.