Imagine a massive croc. Walking on its hind legs. Towering over you and ready to clamp down on you with its enormous fang-filled maw.
What sounds like something out of a bad Star Trek episode actually existed back in the day. Scientists say the fearsome prehistoric croc, Carnufex carolinensis, ruled North America as a top predator millions of years before the dinosaurs showed up.
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Life reconstruction of Carnufex carolinensis.
The Gorn, a fictional extraterrestrial humanoid reptilian species in Star Trek. See the resemblance?
A mysterious specimen, hidden away. Fossils of Carnufex carolinensis, a.k.a. the “Carolina Butcher,” were discovered a decade ago in the Pekin Formation, a geological formation in North Carolina's Chatham County.
They were hidden in storage at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences until they were recently rediscovered by a curator working there, the Washington Post reported.
Slicing machine. When researchers examined the fossils, they realized they were looking at a new species--a nine-foot-long creature dating back some 231 million years. Using a high-resolution surface scanner, the team mapped the croc's skull and created a 3-D model of it (see below).
"The skull of Carnufex is slender and long-snouted with dozens of blade-like teeth," Lindsay Zanno, an assistant professor at North Carolina State University and the lead author of a paper describing the research, told Discovery News. "For all practical purposes, this was an animal skillfully adapted for slicing flesh from the bones of its victims."
Reconstructed skull of Carnufex carolinensis. 3D surface models of skull bones shown in white. Gray areas are missing elements reconstructed from close relatives of Carnufex.
Top of the food chain. Along with extinct animals called rauisuchids and poposauroids, Carnufex was likely one of the top predators in the Northern hemisphere during the late Triassic period. Scientists believe it hunted creatures like armored reptiles and early mammal relatives, before a massive extinction event occurred.
“We knew that there were too many top performers on the proverbial stage in the Late Triassic," Zanno said in a written statement. "Yet, until we deciphered the story behind Carnufex, it wasn’t clear that early crocodile ancestors were among those vying for top predator roles prior to the reign of dinosaurs in North America.”
The paper was published Mar. 19 in the journal Scientific Reports.