To complete a puzzle, you need all the pieces. So when an amateur fossil hunter showed only a portion of a fossilized crocodile skull to researchers at a British dinosaur museum, they didn't think much of it. But when another fossil hunter came across a snout bone that completed the skull, the researchers suddenly realized they were looking at the remains of not only a previously unknown species, but an entirely new genus of prehistoric crocodile.
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A reconstruction of Koumpiodontosuchus aprosdokiti shows the ancient crocodile feeding. (Illustration by Mark Witton, image courtesy of The University of Portsmouth)
Lead researcher Dr. Steve Sweetman, a paleontologist at England's University of Portsmouth, likened the discovery of the new species of prehistoric crocodile -- dubbed Koumpiodontosuchus aprosdokiti, or "button-toothed" crocodile -- to a lucky break:
The sheer serendipity of this discovery is quite bizarre. Finding the two parts is in itself remarkable. That they should be found three months apart by different collectors and taken to the museum where the same members of staff were on duty and therefore able to recall the first specimen defies belief!
The skull pieces were uncovered in 2011 on the coast of the Isle of Wight, in the English Channel. Sweetman and his colleagues believe the well-preserved fossils are about 26 million years old.
A diagram of the fossil find illustrates the anatomical features of the ancient crocodile species' skull and snout. (Image courtesy of The University of Portsmouth)
Unlike other prehistoric crocodile species, the button-toothed croc was tiny. The researchers estimate that members of the newly discovered species likely measured about 2 feet long. Based on the size and shape of the teeth, it's likely that the croc fed on snails and small invertebrates.
A paper describing the new croc species was published online March 11, 2014 in the peer-reviewed journal Acta Palaeontologica Polonica.
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