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Scientists at the University of Missouri have identified a new species of prehistoric crocodile. It is aegisuchus witmeri, but have nicknamed Shieldcroc, and would be the earliest ancestor of modern crocodiles found in Africa.
The copy dates from the late Cretaceous period, about 95 million years ago. This period is part of the Mesozoic Era, which has been called "Age of Dinosaurs". However, says Casey Holliday, co-author of the study, numerous recent discoveries have led some scientists to rename it the "Age of Crocodiles".
The extinct creature had a shield of thick skin on top of his head, as have deduced Holliday and his colleagues analyzed the blood vessels recorded in the bone. The bumps on the bones indicate that the veins carrying blood to a circular mound of skin, something never before seen in a crocodile. According to the authors it is likely that the shield was used to attract other members or to intimidate enemies and possibly as a thermo-regulator to control the temperature of the animal's head.
Shieldcroc was identified by studying a fossilized partial skull specimen discovered in Morocco, which was held by the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto for several years before Holliday analyzed it. The fossil shows that had thin jaws, and researchers posit that could have used his elongated head -1.5 meters in length as a kind of fish trap. "It is possible to remain still awaiting a fish swam past him to rely, then, just open your mouth and eat the fish without a struggle, eliminating the need for strong jaws," says Nick Gardner, co-author of the study published PLoS ONE. Although estimating the total size of the reptile was not easy, the researchers concluded that it could reach a total of 9 meters.
The discovery will provide scientists with additional information on the evolution of these animals, and help identify the best ways to prevent the extinction of modern crocodiles.
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