A nine foot long ancestral crocodile hunting on its hind legs in the southeastern U.S. No, it’s not the backdrop for an original Syfy movie.
Meet the Carnufex carolinensis, dubbed the Carolina Butcher. Paleontologists from North Carolina State University and North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences recently uncovered the beast. Pieces of its skull, spine and upper forelimb were discovered at the Pekin Formation.
Researchers scanned each fragment with the best imaging technology. Then, they used close relatives of the Carolina Butcher to fill in the missing pieces.
This massive crocodile ancestor lived in what is now Chatham County, North Carolina 231 million years ago. North Carolina looked a lot different back then. It was a warm, wet equatorial region that was just starting to break away from the supercontinent, Pangea.
Lindsay Zanno, lead author of the paper, described the importance of these fossils.
“Fossils from this time period are extremely important to scientists because they record the earliest appearance of crocodylomorphs and theropod dinosaurs, two groups that first evolved in the Triassic period, yet managed to survive to the present day in the form of crocodiles and birds,” said Zanno.
Zanno added, “The discovery of Carnufex, one of the world’s earliest and largest crocodylomorphs, adds new information to the push and pull of top terrestrial predators across Pangea.”
Many predators were vying for the top of the food chain back then. But, it would be small bodied crocodylomorphs and theropods that would win out.
“Theropods were ready understudies for vacant top predator niches when large-bodied crocs and their relatives bowed out,” says Zanno. “Predatory dinosaurs went on to fill these roles exclusively for the next 135 million years.”
But, ancient crocodiles still found a niche. “As theropod dinosaurs started to make it big, the ancestors of modern crocs initially took on a role similar to foxes or jackals, with small, sleek bodies and long limbs,” says Susan Drymala, graduate student at NC State and co-author of the paper. “If you want to picture these animals, just think of a modern day fox, but with alligator skin instead of fur.”
They might not have been on top for long, but a massive crocodile hunting on hind legs would have been cool to see.