Meet the Carolina Butcher, a crocodile ancestor which walked on two legs and ruled the Earth

This is a life reconstruction of Carnufex carolinensis. Image: Copyright Jorge Gonzales. Open access

A newly discovered crocodilian ancestor may have filled one the top predator roles before dinosaurs arrived.

Carnufex carolinensis, or the Carolina Butcher, was a 2.7 metre-long, land-dwelling crocodylomorph which walked on its hind legs and likely preyed upon smaller inhabitants of North Carolina ecosystems such as armoured reptiles and early mammal relatives.

Paleontologists from North Carolina State University and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences recovered parts of Carnufex’s skull, spine and upper forelimb from the Pekin Formation in Chatham County, North Carolina.

Because the skull of Carnufex was preserved in pieces, it was difficult to visualise what the complete skull would have looked like in life.

To get a fuller picture of Carnufex’s skull the researchers scanned the individual bones with the latest imaging technology to create a three-dimensional model.

The Pekin Formation contains sediments deposited 231 million years ago in the beginning of the Late Triassic when what is now North Carolina was a wet, warm equatorial region.

“Fossils from this time period are extremely important to scientists because they record the earliest appearance of crocodylomorphs and theropod dinosaurs, two groups that first evolved in the Triassic period, yet managed to survive to the present day in the form of crocodiles and birds,” says Lindsay Zanno, assistant research professor at North Carolina State.

As theropod dinosaurs started to make it big, the ancestors of modern crocs initially took on a role similar to foxes or jackals, with small, sleek bodies and long limbs.

The crocodile ancestor was revealed in an article in the journal Scientific Reports.

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