A 180 million-year-old fossil has revealed a missing link in the crocodile family tree, and it probably doesn't look like what you would expect. The ancient ancestor had tough armor and pointy teeth for capturing prey. That all checks out so far.
But it also had a tail like a dolphin.
Credit: Marton Szabo
That probably sounds pretty strange to those not well-versed in ancient crocodile evolution (read: most of us).
Scientists already knew that at some point, prehistoric crocodiles evolved into dolphin- and orca-like forms at some point 180 million years ago.
But while they found Jurassic-era crocs with tough armor and legs made for walking, and others with flippers and a dolphin tail, they hadn't identified a creature that bridged the two groups together.
If a crocodile with powerful flippers sounds pretty intimidating to you, you would be right. The dolphin-croc was one of the largest coastal predators of the Jurassic period — it grew to be nearly 16 feet long.
So if this sea creature was so large and impressive, why have scientists just discovered it now? The fossil was actually discovered back in 1996 and stored in a museum in Budapest. Researchers realized that the croc had an odd-looking vertebrae, and from there figured out that it was a previously undiscovered species.
Paleontology truly requires an impressive level of attention to detail!
The discovery is teaching scientists more about the diversity of crocodile ancestors that hung around the Jurassic Period. For example, some Jurassic sharks had the serrated teeth of a T-Rex.
In their paper on the discovery, the researchers said that this discovery highlights the "remarkable diversity" of Jurassic-era crocodiles.