Working in Middle Triassic fossil beds, researchers have unearthed the remains of a giant, carnivorous reptile with teeth like steak knives and bony plates covering its back. Called Nundasuchus songeaensis, the “predator crocodile” walked the Earth 240 million years ago, before the dinosaurs took over. The new ancient species was described in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
An international team led by Sterling Nesbitt of Virginia Tech unearthed the fossils in 2007 in the Manda beds of southwestern Tanzania—but it took some time to puzzle together the bones, which were preserved as thousands of pieces. Even now, after three trips back to the site, most of the skull hasn’t been recovered.
Based on the partial skeleton, including bits of the skull and representative postcranial elements, the researchers describe Nundasuchus songeaensis as an ancient reptile with an unusual mix of characteristics: heavy-bodied with limbs under its body (like dinosaurs and birds) and bony plates on its back (like crocodiles). And it was nearly four meters (nine feet) long. Here’s the full reconstruction:
“There’s such a huge gap in our understanding around the time when the common ancestor of birds and crocodilians was alive—there isn’t a lot out there in the fossil record from that part of the reptile family tree,” Nesbitt explains in a news release. The team was originally looking for other prehistoric archosaurs (the lineage that includes today’s birds and crocodiles) when they stumbled on this never-before-seen archosaur species. “This helps us fill in some gaps in the reptile family tree,” he adds, “but we’re still studying it and figuring out the implications.”
In the new genus name, “nunda” means predator in Swahili and “suchus” refers to a crocodile in Greek. The species name comes from Songea, a town near where the bones were discovered.
“Sometimes you know instantly if it’s new and within about 30 seconds of picking up this bone I knew it was a new species,” says Nesbitt (pictured to the right with Nundasuchus bones). “I had hoped to find a leg bone to identify it, and I thought, ‘This is exactly why we’re here' and I looked down and there were bones everywhere. It turns out I was standing on bones that had been weathering out of the rock for hundreds of years—and it was all one individual of a new species.”
Images: Virginia Tech (top), Roger Smith, Iziko Museum, South Africa (bottom)