Meet the “Carolina Butcher” (Carnufex carolinensis), an enormous crocodile ancestor with blade-like teeth that walked on two legs and was at the very top of North America’s food chain 231 million years ago.
According to a new study, the newly discovered toothy beast reveals that predecessors of today’s crocodiles — crocodylomorphs — were top predators in North America prior to the reign of dinosaurs.
“The discovery of Carnufex, one of the world’s earliest and largest crocodylomorphs, adds new information to the push and pull of top terrestrial predators across Pangea,” Lindsay Zanno, an assistant research professor in the biology department at North Carolina State University, said in a statement.
According to Discovery News, the skull, spine and upper forelimb of the reptilian beast were uncovered in the Pekin geologic formation in North Carolina’s Chatham County, where ancient sediment has churned up other prehistoric remains.
“Fossils from this time period are extremely important to scientists because they record the earliest appearance of crocodylomorphs and theropod dinosaurs, two groups that first evolved in the Triassic Period, yet managed to survive to the present day in the form of crocodiles and birds,” Zanno said.
Zanno and her colleagues recovered the remains of Carolina Butcher from the Pekin Formation in Chatham County, North Carolina. When the crocodylomorph was alive during the beginning of the Late Triassic, this area was a wet and warm equatorial region.
The researchers created a detailed 3-D model of Carolina Butcher’s skull using a high-resolution surface scanner to digitize each unearthed fossil from what’s left of the animal’s head. This high tech model and the croc’s other remains suggest that the carnivore was at least 9 feet tall. Because its forelimbs were so short compared to its skull, the researchers suspect that the carnivore walked on two legs a la T. rex.
When these populations of large predators became extint, small-bodied theropods and crocodylomorphs were left behind.
“Theropods were ready understudies for vacant top predator niches when large-bodied crocs and their relatives bowed out,” Zanno said. “Predatory dinosaurs went on to fill these roles exclusively for the next 135 million years.”
As for the crocodiles, they found a lasting role as scavengers.
“As theropod dinosaurs started to make it big, the ancestors of modern crocs initially took on a role similar to foxes or jackals, with small, sleek bodies and long limbs,” researcher and North Carolina State graduate student Susan Drymala said. “If you want to picture these animals, just think of a modern-day fox, but with alligator skin instead of fur.”