Feb 25, 2017 | Updated: 12:28 AM EST

Reptile Preceding Dinosaurs Discovered

Jan 24, 2015 03:08 PM EST

Crocodile
(Photo : By Tamar Assaf (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Paleontologists have discovered a new species of reptile after putting together the remains of a new crocodile-like species that lived long before dinosaurs roamed the Earth.  The study of the prehistoric species of reptile was published recently in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

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This new reptile, looked much like a giant crocodile, which was approximately 9 feet long from head to tail, had large, razor-sharp teeth and was most definitely carnivorous.  This new creature had bony plates on its back like a modern day crocodile does, but unlike crocodiles its legs were located underneath its body.

This new species was first discovered by Sterling Nesbitt, an assistant professor of geological sciences at Virginia Tech.  According to Nesbitt, this reptile was not a dinosaur, but rather a predecessor of the giants that once roamed our planet.

"The reptile itself was heavy-bodied with limbs under its body like a dinosaur, or bird, but with bony plates on its back like a crocodilian," Nesbitt says.

The name of the species is Nundasuchus songeaensi, which is a combination of both Greek and Swahili.  Nesbitt explained that the Nundasuchus part of the name means "predator crocodile" while songeaensis comes from the town where the bones of the reptile were unearthed.

The reptile's bones were found in a little town in the southwestern parts of Tanzania.  At the time, paleontologists were not searching for a new species at all and were, in fact, digging in search of birds and other species of early crocodiles.

However, Nesbitt and his team were not really expecting to find anything new. "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 says. "This helps us fill in some gaps in reptile family tree, but we're still studying it and figuring out the implications."

The fossil was first discovered in 2007, but it took several years for researchers to piece together the thousands of different fragments.  Despite three trips to the site of the find, they still haven't found most of the skull bones.  According to Nesbitt, the team spent over 1,000 hours searching and piecing together the bones. 

"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. 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."

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