Paleontologists have discovered 3 new species of crocodile cousins in the Sahara, which have been nicknamed PancakeCroc, BoarCroc, and RatCroc, along with new skeletons of the previously identified DogCroc and DuckCroc.
Paleontologists have been looking in the region since 2000 for what they term a "lost world" of crocodile ancestors -- which they believe were evolutionary "oddballs" and even ate dinosaurs.
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Bones from a menagerie of ancient crocodile cousins, including the rodent-like RatCroc, have been discovered beneath the windswept dunes of the Sahara. The snub-nosed RatCroc, which had buckteeth for rooting through the ground after tubers or simple animals, is among five early crocodile cousins that ruled Gondwana--a landmass that later broke up into the southern continents--about a hundred million years ago, archaeologists say. "There's an entire croc world brewing in Africa that we really had only an inkling about before," said Paul Sereno, a paleontologist at the University of Chicago and leader of a new study published today in the journal ZooKeys.
The ancient croc ancestor PancakeCroc was the "ultimate sit-and-wait predator," paleontologist Paul Sereno said. The creature would lie motionless, waiting "for something stupid" to swim into its rail-thin, 3-foot-long jaws, which were lined with rows of spiky teeth, Sereno said. One of five newfound crocs that coexisted during the Cretaceous, PancakeCroc likely evolved its unique adaptations to reign over its own corner of the lush, river-carved plains of present-day Niger and Morocco.
The plant-eating DogCroc had lanky legs that meant it was likely spry enough to run into the water if threatened. Skeletal analysis reveals that many of the newfound Gondwana crocs--including DogCroc--were surprisingly limber, and some may have been able to gallop like modern saltwater crocodiles in Australia, Sereno said in November 2009. That crocodile ancestors could run and swim with equal dexterity may have given them a leg-up on escaping predators---and extinction, Sereno added. Some of the ancient animals must have survived the mass extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs, since many crocodilyforms--such as crocodiles, alligators, and caimans--thrive today.
By far the mightiest of the newfound fossil crocs, BoarCroc was a 20-foot-long "saber-toothed cat in armor" that ate dinosaurs for dinner. Three sets of fangs--so long they jutted above and below the jaw when shut (as seen in the skull at bottom)--handily sliced meat, while a snout reinforced with bonelike armor boosted the animal's ramming power, paleontologist Paul Sereno said in November 2009.
DuckCroc had a long, smooth, sensitive nose to poke through vegetation, as well as hook-shaped teeth to snag frogs and small fish in shallow water. "Gondwana had lots of real oddballs," said Hans Dieter-Sues, a paleontologist at the Natural Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., who was not involved in the research. "For somebody who has studied a lot of fossil crocodilyforms, I'm fascinated by these creatures," Sues added.
Paleontologist Paul Sereno and colleagues have been scouring the harsh deserts of northern Africa since 2000 for evidence of a "lost world" of crocodilian ancestors. "We knew about SuperCroc, the titan of all crocs, but we didn't have quite an idea of what existed in the shadows of the Cretaceous," Sereno said in reference to the oddball crocs his team describes in a November 2009 study.
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