An enormous crocodile ancestor with blade-like teeth walked on two legs and was at the very top of North America's food chain 231 million years ago, according to a new study.
Named "Carolina Butcher" (Carnufex carolinensis), the newly discovered toothy beast reveals that predecessors of today's crocodiles, crocodylomorphs were top predators in North America prior to the reign of dinosaurs.
Carolina Butcher, lived up to its horror movie-style name.
"Carnufex lived in what is now North Carolina around the time the supercontinent Pangea was breaking apart," lead author Lindsay Zanno told media. "The skull of Carnufex is slender and long-snouted with dozens of blade-like teeth. For all practical purposes, this was an animal skillfully adapted for slicing flesh from the bones of its victims."
Zanno is an assistant research professor at North Carolina State University and director of the Paleontology & Geology Research Laboratory at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. She and her colleagues recovered the remains of Carolina Butcher from the Pekin Formation in Chatham County, North Carolina. When the crocodylomorph was alive during the beginning of the Late Triassic, this area was a wet and warm equatorial region.
The researchers created a detailed 3-D model of Carolina Butcher's skull using a high-resolution surface scanner to digitize each unearthed fossil from what's left of the animal's head. This high tech model and the croc's other remains suggest that the carnivore was at least 9 feet tall. Because its forelimbs were so short compared to its skull, the researchers suspect that the carnivore walked on two legs.
The scientists don't yet have hard evidence, such as stomach contents or unique bite marks on other animal fossils, indicating what Carolina Butcher hunted. Based on other known animals from this area at the time, however, the scientists believe likely prey candidates were aetosaurs (armoured reptiles) and dicynodonts (large-bodied early relatives of mammals). These animals themselves were formidable.
Carolina Butcher was not the only meat-eater around, either.
"The Triassic was a bit of an ecological Twilight Zone: too few plant eaters and an overabundance of predators meant that the hunters often became the hunted," Zanno said.