Wits scientist finds ancient mammal-like croc

2010-08-05 12:47

The international journal Nature has published an article about

Johannesburg-based scientist Zubair Jinnah, who discovered the holotype of a new

species in Tanzania – an ancient crocodile with mammal-like teeth.

“The unusual creature is changing the picture of animal life at 100

million years ago in sub-Saharan Africa,” said the University of the

Witwatersrand.

The fossils were discovered in the Rukwa Rift Basin of Tanzania in

2008.

“I discovered the specimen, which has an articulated skull,

vertebrae and limb elements, whereas previously discovered material found by our

research team of the same species in previous years was of isolated or

incomplete elements,” said Jinnah, who is a sedimentologist and an associate

lecturer in the Wits School of Geosciences.

Sedimentology is the study of modern sediments such as sand, mud

and clay.

Jinnah’s research focuses on fossil-bearing sedimentary

rocks.

“This specimen will now form the holotype of the new species,” said

Jinnah.

Patrick O’Connor, associate professor of anatomy at the Ohio

University College of Osteopathic Medicine, said the specimen’s teeth made the

discovery very interesting.

“If you only looked at the teeth, you would not think this was a

crocodile.

You would wonder at whether it is a strange mammal or mammal-like

reptile,” he said.

The new species, named Pakasuchus (Paka is the Kiswahili name for

cat and souchos is Greek for crocodile), is a small animal whose head would fit

into the palm of a person’s hand.

In a statement, Wits said: “It was not as heavily armoured as other

crocodiles, except along the tail, and its gracile limbs suggest that the

creatures were quite mobile.

Other aspects of its anatomy suggest that it was a

land-dwelling creature (unlike water-dwelling crocodiles) that likely feasted on

insects and other small animals.

“The new species is not a close relative of modern crocodilians,

but is a member of a very successful side branch of the crocodyliform lineage

that lived during the Mesozoic Era.”

Pakasuchus lived alongside large, plant-eating sauropod and

predatory theropod dinosaurs, other types of crocodiles, turtles and various

kinds of fish.

It is believed that Pakasuchus was abundant during the middle

Cretaceous period, from around 110 million until 80 million years ago.

Former Wits scientist Eric Roberts, who was the lead geologist on

the Tanzanian project, said the discovery was important in understanding past

ecosystems.

Jinnah added: “Understanding the African fossil record from the

Cretaceous (145 to 90 million years ago) period is important for a number of

reasons.

“Gondwana (South America, Africa, Australia, Antarctica, India) had

begun breaking up at that time and the types of animals we find in Cretaceous

ecosystems help us hypothesise about how the continents broke up.”

Jinnah said it would help scientists understand how African

landscapes evolved over time.

“Africa’s records of sedimentary rocks and fossils are relatively

poorly understood and documented.” – Sapa



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