A new species of extinct crocodile relative is changing life on the Triassic coast

  • Art
  • July 11, 2024

The surprising discovery of a new species of extinct crocodile relative from the Triassic Favret Formation of Nevada, USA, is rewriting the story of coastal life during the first act of the Age of Dinosaurs, described in a study published in Biology Lettersthe new species Benggwigwishingasuchus eremicarminis reveals that while giant ichthyosaurs ruled the oceans, the ancient crocodile family known as pseudosuchian archosaurs ruled the coasts throughout the Middle Triassic between 247.2 and 237 million years ago.

“This exciting new species demonstrates that pseudosuchians occupied coastal areas worldwide during the Middle Triassic,” said Dr. Nate Smith, lead author of the paper, and Gretchen Augustyn, director and curator of the Dinosaur Institute at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

The site where the Favret Formation is located is known for its fossils of marine animals such as ammonites and marine reptiles such as the giant ichthyosaur, which originate from the eastern Panthalassan Ocean of the Triassic. C.jongorum — finding the newly described B. eremicarminis came as a shock.

“Our first reaction was: what on earth is this?” said co-author Dr. Nicole Klein of the University of Bonn. “We expected to find things like marine reptiles. We couldn't understand how a land animal could end up so far out at sea among the ichthyosaurs and ammonites. It wasn't until I saw the almost completely prepared specimen in real life that I was convinced that this really was a land animal.”

Pseudosuchian archosaurs have been unearthed in fossil layers from the shorelines of the ancient Tethys Ocean, but this is the first coastal representative from the Panthalassan Ocean and the Western Hemisphere, revealing that these crocodilian relatives were present in coastal areas worldwide during the Middle Triassic. Interestingly, these coastal species do not all belong to the same evolutionary group, suggesting that pseudosuchians (and archosauriforms more broadly) adapted to shoreline life independently.

“Essentially, it looks like you had a bunch of very different archosauriform groups that decided to dip their toes in the water during the Middle Triassic. What's interesting is that it doesn't look like many of these 'independent experiments' led to broader radiations of semi-aquatic groups,” Smith said.

During the Triassic, the archosaurs, 'the ruling reptiles', emerged and split into two groups with two surviving representatives: birds, the descendants of the dinosaurs, and crocodilians (alligators, crocodiles and gharials), the descendants of pseudosuchian archosaurs such as B. eremicarminis. Although today's crocodiles look similar enough that most people mistake them for one another, their ancient relatives varied greatly in size and lifestyle. The evolutionary relationships of B. eremicarminis and its relatives suggest that Pseudosuchia reached a high level of diversity in a short period of time after the End-Permian mass extinction, the extent of which has yet to be discovered in the fossil record.

“A growing number of recent discoveries of pseudosuchians from the Middle Triassic suggest that there was an underestimated amount of morphological and ecological diversity and experimentation going on in the early history of the group. While much of the public's fascination with the Triassic focuses on the origin of dinosaurs, it was actually the pseudosuchians that were doing interesting things at the beginning of the Mesozoic,” Smith said.

The new species underscores the abundance of these ancient reptiles during the Triassic, from giants such as Mambawakale ruhuhu to smaller animals such as the newly described B. eremicarminiswhich probably grew to about 5-6 feet in length. Exactly how long B. eremicarminis was and how it survived along the coasts remains hidden in the past. Only a few elements of the individual's skull have been found and there are also no clues about how it fed and hunted. What is clearer is that B. eremicarminis probably stranded quite close to shore. The well-preserved limbs are well developed with no signs of aquatic life such as fins or altered bone density.

The research team wanted a name that would pay homage to the original human inhabitants of the Augusta Mountains where the specimen was found, so they consulted a member of the Fallon Paiute Shoshone tribe to come up with a suitable name. “Benggwi-Gwishinga,” a word that means “to catch fish” in Shoshone, was combined with the Greek word for Sobek, the Egyptian crocodile-headed god, to come up with the new genus. Benggwigwishingasuchus. The specific epithet eremicarminis translates to “desert song,” in honor of two NHMLAC supporters who share a passion for Southwest paleontology and opera. The full name thus translates roughly to “Fisherman Croc's Desert Song.”

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