It’s widely-accepted that dinosaur ruled the Earth (unless you believe that the Earth is only 6,000 years old and magically sprang into existence). For around 200 million, roarin’, stompin’, Jeff Goldblum-chasin’ years they were the unquestionable tyrants of the land.
Or were they? Scientists from the US claim to have found an early ancestor of crocodiles which they believe could have been the apex predator in the region in which it lived, certainly bigger than any dinosaurs in the vicinity.
Crocodiles (along with birds) are 2 families of animals, related to dinosaurs, which managed to survive the mass extinction event of 65 million years ago. They (like sharks of the land) have therefore evolved over millions of years to become perfect killing machines.
But interestingly, this was not always the case – once upon a time, the ancestors of modern-day crocs were believed to be small, land-dwelling and primarily vegetarian (which is a bit like finding out Simon Cowell actually had a taste in music at some point in his youth).
The ‘crocodylomorph’ discovered by the team of palaeontologists is described as ‘unusually large-bodied’ for its time period and could be one of the earliest examples of when crocs began to evolve to be bigger and bite-ier (which I promise is a real scientific word…).
So, what’s the point?
It is useful to understand how creatures have evolved in the past so we have a better idea of how and why their adaptations came about (i.e. what happened in their environment to make the change in their traits more helpful to their survival).
Understanding this can be useful in today’s world where we need to understand how changing environments can affect ecosystems and how some organisms might adapt while others might require intervention in order to protect them.
Another reason studying ancient creatures is important is simply for a deeper understanding of our planet’s biological history as this is ultimately part of the jigsaw that answers the grand philosophical questions: ‘Who are we?’ and ‘Where do we come from?’
Plus dinosaurs are friggin’ awesome.
What did they do?
The researchers analysed a skull discovered in the Pekin formation (in modern day North Carolina) and compared it to other ‘crocodylomorph’ fossils to see where it fits in to the evolutionary jigsaw.
Important things to consider were its age and how certain features on the skull were shaped. Features such as the teeth and shape of the jaw can help the researchers to make intelligent guesses as to how this individual creature lived, and by comparing features with other related crocodylomorphs they can guess as to how it evolved over time.
Did they prove anything?
The skull was around 231 million years old and more than 50cm long. The researchers calculated that it would likely have been around 3m long.
Its teeth were ‘elongated, serrated and slightly recurved’, suggesting that it ate meat. Because of its size and carnivorous nature, the team named it ‘carnufex’ – meaning butcher.
The team claims that meat-eating dinosaurs found in the same region and from that same time period were smaller than carnufex, which they say suggests it was a ‘top-order predator’.
So, what does it mean?
The researchers do make a compelling case, generally if something is larger than anything else around and eats meat then it is probably an apex predator (although it might also be a scavenger).
The fact that it was larger than the dinosaurs of its era and location (dinosaurs in other regions at the same time grew bigger) raises an interesting possibility that at one point crocodiles were the predators of dinosaurs.
Given that we are (kind-of) predators of crocodiles (there are plenty of places that sell cutlets of croc), does this mean we are the most successful predators the planet has ever seen? Probably not – in a few million years the ancestors of lions or dolphins or even chipmunks might be lunching on us, so is the precariousness of evolutionary power.
So perhaps we should view our time as the Earth’s dominant species for what it is in the grand passage of time – merely a passing fad – and try not to ruin it for the 7ft tall meat-eating apex-predator chipmunks of the post-apocalyptic future.
Original article in Scientific Reports Mar 2014
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Zanno LE, Drymala S, Nesbitt SJ, & Schneider VP (2015). Early crocodylomorph increases top tier predator diversity during rise of dinosaurs. Scientific reports, 5 PMID: 25787306