New prehistoric species could reveal crocodile ancestry

A newly discovered fossil shows crocodile ancestors may be much older than previously thought.
By Dirk Trudeau | Oct 05, 2017
Researchers from Edinburgh University have discovered an ancient marine predator that could help shed light on the origin of modern crocodiles, a new study published in the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology reports.

The 10-foot-long reptile -- known as Ieldraan melkshamensis -- is an ancient species that existed roughly 163 million years ago in what is now Europe.

Scientists first discovered the animal by looking at a heavily damaged fossil that has been kept in the archives of the Natural History Museum for almost 150 years. The prehistoric reptile lived in the warm, shallow seas that covered prehistoric Europe. It had powerful jaws and large, serrated teeth that helped it become one of strongest predators in the oceans of Jurassic Britain.

Previously, scientists believed that Geosaurini -- the sub-family of crocodiles the new species belongs to -- first emerged during the Late Jurassic period, sometime between 152 and 157 million years ago. However, the study shows that the group arose millions of years earlier during the Middle Jurassic.

The fossil in the study, which scientists first uncovered in 1875, is considered a new species because of the distinctive features in its skull, lower jaw, and teeth.

"It's not the prettiest fossil in the world, but the Melksham Monster tells us a very important story about the evolution of these ancient crocodiles and how they became the apex predators in their ecosystem," said lead author Davide Foffa, a PhD student in Edinburgh University's school of geosciences, according to BBC News.

While the specimen was completely covered in a hard rock nodule, the team managed to uncover the specimen after weeks of painstaking work. It is not easy to dig such a fossil out of rock, but the results could lead to new research about crocodile ancestry.

"This unyielding matrix had to be removed by force, using carbon steel tipped chisels and grinding wheels encrusted with industrial diamonds," said stud co-author Mark Graham, senior fossil preparator at the Natural History Museum, according to Sky News. "The work took many hours over a period of weeks, and great care had to be taken to avoid damaging the skull and teeth as they became exposed. This was one tough old croc in life and death."

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