Jurassic fossil is the missing link in crocodile family tree

Scientists have long known the ancient seas of our Earth were home to unusual dolphin-like animals that evolved from crocodiles, but it wasn’t until the discovery of a 180 million-year-old fossil that researchers have been able to really understand their history. The fossil is the missing link in the family tree of crocodiles. It is thought that the specimen belonged to one of the largest ocean predators in the Jurassic Period. It was originally unearthed on a mountain in north-west Hungary in 1996 and has been stored at a museum in Budapest until it was examined by a team of palaeontologists and identified as a new species based upon the discovery of an unusually shaped vertebra in the tail fin.

The fossil features the large section of the backbone of a newly discovered species that would have been five metres long with large formidable teeth for attacking its prey. The ancient missing link shares morphological features that belong to two separate families of prehistoric crocodile – one with bony armour on their backs and underbelly and limbs that were evolved for walking on land, and another without any armour but with tail fins and flippers making them very adapted to swimming. The new species, named Magyarosuchus fitosi, has a mix of these features. It was heavily armoured but also possessed a tail fin, bridging the evolutionary bridge between the two families.

Dr Mark Young of the University of Edinburgh was involved in the study and has commented: “This fossil provides a unique insight into how crocodiles began evolving into dolphin and killer whale-like forms more than 180 million years ago. The presence of both bony armour and a tail fin highlights the remarkable diversity of Jurassic-era crocodiles.”

The study has been published in the journal PeerJ.

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