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Researchers Discover More About Ancient Crocodiles

The mouth of today’s crocodilians inspires fear and awe, with their wide gape and the greatest known bite force in the vertebrate animal kingdom. However, this apex predator of today and its modus of attack (its mouth) had humble beginnings.

The very earliest crocodilians were very different from the beasts we know well today. They were much smaller bodied, slender, and had longer legs. It is speculated that they led a much different lifestyle to the crocodiles we all know and fear today.

A new study by a team of international experts, led by University of Witwatersrand Ph.D. candidate Kathleen Dollman and Professor Jonah Choiniere, published in the American Museum Novitates, endeavored to further explore the mouth of one of the earliest occurring and least understood groups of crocodilians, the shartegosuchids.

This is a digital reconstruction of the palate of the fossil. Image: WITS University, Jonah Choiniere, Katheleen Dollman)
This is a digital reconstruction of the palate of the fossil. (Image: WITS University, Jonah Choiniere, Katheleen Dollman)

In 2010, Choiniere was a part of a field team working in the Late Jurassic (±160 mya) exposures in the western Gobi in Mongolia when he found the fossil of a small snout of a shartegosuchid. This work was co-authored by researchers based at the American Museum of Natural History, George Washington University, and the Institute for Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology.

This is a reconstruction of Shartegosuchus. Image: Viktor Rademacher)
This is a reconstruction of Shartegosuchus. (Image: Viktor Rademacher)

The snout was later CT scanned at the American Museum of Natural History, exposing an unusual, closed secondary palate. Crocodilians are one of only a few groups of animals that evolve a completely closed, bony secondary palate (along with turtles and mammals). A closed secondary palate has many biological implications for crocodilians, including breathing while under water and reinforcing the skull to allow for their incredible bite force.

This study showed that these early crocodilians, the shartegosuchids, are important because they evolved a completely closed secondary palate much earlier than previously thought. This is an interesting example of convergent evolution, whereby a similar feature evolves independently in two completely unrelated groups.

This is a digital model of the skull still enclosed in matrix. Image: WITS University, Jonah Choiniere, Katheleen Dollman)
This is a digital model of the skull still enclosed in the matrix. (Image: WITS University, Jonah Choiniere, Katheleen Dollman)

The advent of a convergent evolutionary event allows scientists to test questions about why that feature evolved and even the function of that feature, which in this case is the first step in understanding the purpose of a closed secondary palate in crocodilians. Shartegosuchids have a thickened and sculptured palate together with a tall and short rostrum, whereas extant crocodilians have a smooth palate with a long and broad rostrum. Dollman said:

Choiniere added:

Provided by: University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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Troy Oakes
Troy was born and raised in Australia and has always wanted to know why and how things work, which led him to his love for science. He is a professional photographer and enjoys taking pictures of Australia's beautiful landscapes. He is also a professional storm chaser where he currently lives in Hervey Bay, Australia.

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