Researchers say they’ve made an unusual discovery of a crocodile that was hiding right under their noses, when one species actually turned out to be two.
The team from Florida International University (FIU) published their findings on the slender-snouted crocodile in the journal Zootaxa, naming it Mecistops leptorhynchus. It’s the first new crocodile species to be found in more than 80 years, inhabiting Central Africa from Cameroon to Tanzania.
The scientists had been analyzing the DNA and appearance of wild and captive crocodiles in six countries in Africa. But in so doing, they found that there were two separate slender-snouted species, one native to West Africa and the other to Central Africa.
Medium-sized, the animal gets its name from its long and slender snout. They were first described in 1824, but living in very remote areas, they have been difficult to study. They’re also very shy and camouflage themselves, meaning finding them in the first place has been hard.
There are some differences between the animals, notes National Geographic. Those from Central Africa have a softer and smoother appearance, while those from West Africa are larger, with heavier scales and rougher skin. The former also lacks bony crests found on the latter.
Genetically it’s thought these two crocodiles diverged more than 8 million years ago, separated by volcanoes in Cameroon. The last time a new species of crocodile was discovered was back in 1935.
But this latest discovery isn’t good news for the crocodiles. Because it suggests that the number of West African crocodiles had been grossly underestimated, and they may be severely threatened.
“Recognizing the slender-snouted crocodile as actually comprised of two different species is cause for great conservation concern,” Matthew Shirley, the study’s lead author, told FIU News.
“We estimate only 10 percent of slender-snouted crocodiles occur in West Africa, effectively diminishing its population by 90 percent. This makes the West African slender-snouted crocodile one of the most critically endangered crocodile species in the world.”
The crocodile has for some time been the least known crocodile in the world, so the team hope this study will bring attention to the challenges the species is facing. It is thought there are now only about 500 of these West African crocodiles left in the wild.