The fossil of an ancient predator, believed to be the oldest and largest ancestor of crocodiles, has been discovered. The fossil is said to be around 231 million years of age. The animal lived in North America before the era of dinosaurs. It has been named Carnufex carolinensis, and is commonly referred to as the Carolina butcher. The findings of the Carnufex carolinensis fossil have been published in Scientific Reports.
3-D reconstruction of Carnufex carolinensis. Photo credits: Jorge Gonzales
The Carnufex carolinensis is thought to have been the top predator in its times. It is estimated to have been around 3 meters long. It flourished on land and walked upright. Its blade-like teeth would have been ideal to prey upon armoured reptiles of that epoch.
The lead author, Lindsay Zanno, explained the importance of their findings as follows:
“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.
“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 fossil of the Carnufex carolinensis that has been discovered included a partial skull, jawbone, teeth, ribs, vertebrae, and a forelimb. These were found buried in Late Triassic sediments of the Carnian Pekin Formation deposited 231 million years ago – what is now Chatham County, North Carolina.
From the preserved partial skull and individual bones, a team of scientists have created a 3-D reconstruction of what the animal would have looked like using a high-resolution surface scanner.
The 3-D reconstruction of the skull. White areas: model of the skull bones. Grey areas: missing elements constructed from close relatives of the Carnufex carolinensis. Photo credits: Lindsay Zanno.
What happened to the giant crocodile-like species?
At the end of the Triassic period, around 200 million years ago, they are said to have been wiped out, leaving behind only small crocodylomorphs and theropod dinosaurs survived.