Using advanced X-ray scanning and 3D rendering, a team of scientists from Yale University and the Smithsonian have identified a snappy new species of ancient reptile from a single fossilized skull.
With a 2.5-centimeter-long head, Colobops noviportensis (colobops from the Greek for shortened face; and noviportensis, for New Haven, Connecticut, where the fossil was found) was a petite beast – unlikely to draw too much attention compared to the massive dinosaur and archosaur species that also roamed Pangea some 200 million years ago.
Yet after a lengthy analysis of the specimen, now published in Nature Communications, the researchers show that C. noviportensis’ petite bite packed an incredible punch.
Video courtesy of the Yale Office of Public Affairs and Communications
"Colobops would have been a diminutive but plucky little beast, part of a little-known menagerie of small animals that lived among the first dinosaurs," said senior author Bhart-Anjan Bhullar in a statement.
"Its tiny frame hid some big secrets."
According to a computer-based reconstruction of how muscles attached to the skull, C. noviportensis had impressively beefy adductor musculature attached to a reinforced yet flexible snout. Taken all together, the authors conclude that the reptile’s jaws could clamp down with such force that “for an animal of its body size, C. noviportensis likely had a more powerful bite than any other Triassic reptile.”
This suite of unique physical traits, or a jaw muscle system that rivals it, has also not been observed in any currently living diapsids – a group that includes ancient reptiles and their descendants (crocodiles, lizards, snakes, tuataras, and dinosaurs/birds), meaning that C. noviportensis is still in number one place for strongest reptile jaws for an animal its size, even hundreds of millions of years after it lived.
Not bad for a gecko-sized archosaur.
Based on our current evolutionary trees, C. noviportensis is believed to have branched off from other Triassic diapsids soon after the massive Permo-Triassic extinction event (cheerily nicknamed the “Great Dying”) approximately 252 million years ago.
During the period, the diapsids that had survived the event diversified greatly, acquiring new adaptions to exploit resources or habitats newly vacated by extinct species. C. noviportensis took the opportunity to develop jaws capable of crushing through scales and bone, suggesting it may have eaten other reptiles, though we’ll likely never know for certain.
Given the scarcity of C. noviportensis in the fossil record, we’re also unlikely to know exactly what happened to the fierce little creature and why its seemingly advanced jaw system was not passed down to future species.