New research has revealed that a large crocodile lived in North America as top predator before dinosaurs arrived on the continent.
Carnufex carolinensis, or the Carolina Butcher, ruled over the continent about 230 million years ago, according to research. The fossil of this large crocodile was discovered in North Carolina. The crocodiles were 9 feet long and used to walk on their hind legs. They likely preyed upon smaller inhabitants of various North Carolina ecosystems.
Parts of Carnufex’s skull, spine, and upper forelimb were recovered by paleontologists at North Carolina State University and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences from the Pekin Formation in Chatham County, North Carolina.
The skull of Carnufex was preserved in pieces, so it was not easy to visualize the complete skull look. Researchers then scanned the individual bones with the latest imaging technology to get a full picture of Carnufex’s skull. Next, they created a three-dimensional model of the reconstructed skull using the more complete skulls of close relatives to fill in the missing pieces.
“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,” said Lindsay Zanno, assistant research professor at NC State. Zanno is director of the Paleontology and Geology lab at the museum and lead author of the research paper.
In the Southern Hemisphere, “these animals hunted alongside the earliest theropod dinosaurs, creating a predator pile-up,” Zanno noted.
However, the discovery of Carnufex indicates that in the north, large-bodied crocodylomorphs, not dinosaurs, were adding to the diversity of top predator niches.
“We knew that there were too many top performers on the proverbial stage in the Late Triassic,” Zanno added. “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.”
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