A newly discovered crocodile ancestor that lived on land and walked on two legs may have been a top predator before dinosaurs took over the world.
Carnufex carolinensis, whose name means Carolina Butcher, was 2.7m long and thought to have preyed on other reptiles and mammals.
It lived in North Carolina, 231m years ago at the start of the Late Triassic period when the region had a wet equatorial climate and was starting to break away from the ancient supercontinent Pangea.
Dr Lindsay Zanno, from North Carolina State University, lead author of a paper describing the find in the journal Scientific Reports, said: “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.
“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.”
Scientists recovered parts of the creature’s skull, spine, and an upper forelimb and used scanning technology to create a 3D model of its reconstructed skull.
Typical predators roaming Pangea included large-bodied rauisuchids and poposauroids, fearsome cousins of ancient crocodiles that went extinct in the Triassic period.
In the Southern Hemisphere, these animals hunted alongside the earliest theropod dinosaurs, creating a “predator pile-up”, said Dr Zanno.
The discovery of Carnufex indicates that in the north, large crocodile ancestors, not dinosaurs, were the top predators. Still, ancient crocodiles found success in other places. “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.
“If you want to picture these animals, just think of a modern day fox, but with alligator skin instead of fur,” Dr Zanno said.
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