More than 200 million years ago, west Texas was a swampy, tropical rainforest with tall conifers, lush ferns and bountiful lakes. Today the region is dry and scrubby, but the dusty soil of the windswept plains still possesses evidence of the prehistoric creatures that once roamed there during the Triassic Period.
In June 2001, a paleontology team from Texas Tech University was excavating fossils on a ranch outside the small town of Post, Texas, when research assistant Doug Cunningham spotted the very back end of a skull sticking out of the ground. The team carefully removed the mudstone surrounding the entire skull and brought it back to the Texas Tech campus for further examination.
After years of painstaking work to remove the fossil from the surrounding rock, the researchers determined that they had discovered the three-foot-long skull of a phytosaur, a prehistoric creature with a long snout that resembled modern-day crocodiles. Bill Mueller, assistant curator of paleontology at the Museum of Texas Tech University, told Texas Tech Today that phytosaurs lived during the Triassic Period between 203 million and 230 million years ago before they died out during a mysterious mass extinction. “They had basically the same lifestyle as the modern crocodile by living in and around the water, eating fish, and whatever animals came to the margins of the rivers and lakes. But one of the big differences is the external nares, the nose, is back up next to its eyes instead of at the end of its snout.”
The Texas Tech researchers determined that the skull came from a female because it lacked the distinctive feature of male phytosaurs— a bony crest that stretched from its nostrils by its eyes to the tip of its snout. Based on the skull’s size, the researchers estimated that the phytosaur measured nearly 17 feet from its nose to the tip of its tail. (Males would have been nearly a foot longer.) They reported that after the female phytosaur they had unearthed died, the long-nosed creature sank to the bottom of an ancient oxbow lake created by a flooded river, where the sediment and soil of the lake bottom preserved the skull.
A phytosaur skull is uncommon enough— only approximately 200 have ever been found in North America— but what made the fossil discovered by the Texas Tech researchers even more rare is that it still had its teeth intact. “It was really well preserved with the teeth and everything,” Cunningham told Texas Tech Today. “We were all kind of in awe of it. It had this long, skinny snout. It was quite a bit different.”
By examining the skull’s snout, an opening called the supratemporal fenestra and the bones on the back of the head and then comparing those features to the skulls of other phytosaurs, the Texas Tech researchers came to the conclusion that they had discovered a separate species of the ancient creature, which they named Machaeroprosopus lottorum in honor of the Lott family, who owned the ranch where the fossil was buried. Their findings about the new species were recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Earth and Environmental Science Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
Scientists still have a great deal to learn about phytosaurs, since the skeletal remains that have been unearthed have been few in number and because paleontologists have yet to discover a completely intact skeleton.