A crocodile that lived some 180 million years ago has finally been identified over two centuries after the discovery of its fossilised remains – a development scientists say sheds more light on the family tree of such reptiles in prehistoric times.
The well-preserved incomplete fossil skull of an ancient predator from the early Jurassic period, found in near the Bavarian town of Altdorf in the 1770s, has been recognised as the now-extinct species Mystriosaurus laurillardi.
For the past 60 years, the remains were thought to belong to a similar species called Steneosaurus bollensis, which roamed present-day Europe around the same time. Mystriosaurus has long been considered a junior (the name that appeared later as opposed to the senior one) synonym of Steneosaurus, but the new reassessment of the Mystriosaurus laurillardi holotype demonstrates that it is a “distinct and valid taxon”.
The research team, which included scientists from the University of Edinburgh, identified the beast by analysing the Bavarian fossils and the almost-complete skull of another reptile, discovered in Yorkshire, UK in the 1800s. Both are said to belong to the same Mysteriosaurus species.
The croc was more than four metres in length and had a long snout and pointed teeth, the scientists said. It was living in warm seas that once covered what would become Europe, primarily ate fish and could easily travel between islands.
“Unravelling the complex history and anatomy of fossils like Mystriosaurus is necessary if we are to understand the diversification of crocodiles during the Jurassic,” said study leader Dr. Mark Young. “Their rapid increase in biodiversity between 200 and 180 million years ago is still poorly understood.”
The study, led by the Museum of Natural History in Bielefeld, Germany, was published in the journal Acta Palaeontologica Polonica.