Paleontologists in both Portugal and North Carolina announced within the last week that they have discovered fossils belonging to two newly identified species. Both lived during the Late Triassic period, some 220 to 230 million years ago, when a supercontinent known as Pangaea incorporated nearly all of the land masses on Earth. In what became the Algarve region of Portugal, an enormous salamander-like creature with a broad head and thin legs roamed the tropical landscape. Around the same time, an intimidating crocodile ancestor that scientists have dubbed the “Carolina Butcher” prowled the warm, humid environs of what is now North Carolina.
Scientists recently uncovered the fossilized bones of a human-sized salamander-like creature dating to the Late Triassic period (some 220 to 230 million years ago) in the Algarve, Portugal’s southernmost region. They dubbed the newly identified species Metoposaurus algarvensis, in honor of its origins. According to the scientists’ findings, the giant amphibian may have been more than 6 feet long and weighed over 200 pounds. In addition to a broad, round head, it appears to have had thin legs that may have barely supported its body weight when it was out of water.
Bones belonging to different species of the genus Metoposaurus, or “front lizard,” have been discovered in other regions of Europe, as well as in North America, India and Africa, but these are the first to be found on the Iberian Peninsula. According to the new study, published this week in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, the widely dispersed nature of the bones suggests that metoposaurs were widespread before Pangaea split apart some 200 million years ago to form the modern continents. The study’s authors also point out that metoposaur remains have often been found in large groups, suggesting mass death due to the drying up of a lake or other habitat.
Also around 230 million years ago, the newly identified reptile species Carnufex carolinensis—a massive, carnivorous ancestor of the modern crocodile—perched atop the food chain in its own part of Pangaea. At the time, just before the supercontinent began to split apart, the region that is now North Carolina was located near the equator, and the climate was also warm and wet.
Paleontologists from North Carolina State University and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences discovered parts of the skull, spine and arm bone of the creature while digging in the Pekin Formation in Chatham County, North Carolina. They immediately identified it as something new, noting the unique texture of the bones. “It has really pronounced ornamentation on the skull, it has all these pits and grooves,” lead study author Lindsay Zanno told LiveScience. This ornamentation is seen on today’s crocodiles, but absent in their early ancestors.
Zanno and her colleagues published their findings last week in the journal Scientific Reports. They dubbed the new species Carnufex, or “butcher,” because of the creature’s long pointed skull and blade-like teeth. Measuring up to nine feet tall, it probably walked on its hind legs and used those menacing teeth to slice flesh off the bones of its victims, which may have included armored reptiles and early mammal relatives. The scientists identified the new species as an early crocodylomorph, a group that includes modern-day crocodiles, alligators and caimans, along with their extinct relatives.
Carnufex was one of a number of predators fighting for supremacy in the region before the arrival of dinosaurs. Chief among these were the rauisuchids, big-headed dinosaur-like reptiles who share some skeletal features with Carnufex. At the end of the Triassic, a massive extinction claimed many of the world’s big predators, including large crocodylomorphs like Carnufex and rauisuchids. Theropods and other meat-eating dinosaurs then moved into the top predator spots, and stayed there for the next 135 million years.
Meanwhile, crocodylomorphs began changing significantly in order to survive, developing smaller, sleeker bodies with longer limbs. In this way, the discovery of new species such as Carnufex helps illuminate the fact that today’s crocodylomorphs—often dubbed “living fossils” on account of their prehistoric appearance—have in fact evolved a great deal since the times of their earliest ancestors.