Predator croc found, existed before dinosaurs, named Nundasuchus

A predator-croc that existed before the dinosaurs has been discovered and named by a team of paleontologists. It had steak knife-like teeth, bony plates on its back, and legs that lay under the body.

Discovering a new type of prehistoric animal is rare privelege, naming one is even rarer. But not for Sterling Nesbitt Ph.D., an assistant professor of geological sciences in the College of Science at Virginia Tech.

Dr. Nesbitt, has been responsible for naming more than half a dozen reptiles, some of them dinosaurs, in his young career (he’s only 32).

Nundasuchus songeaensis was a 9-foot-long carnivorous reptile. It was not a dinosaur. The name is a mix of Swahili with Greek, he explained. Nunda is Swahili for “predator”, while suchus is the Greek word for “crocodile”.

The bones were found in a town in southeastern Tanzania called Songea, hence the second name songeaensis.

Nundasuchus songeaensis

A representation of Dr. Nesbitt’s latest addition to the paleontological vernacular: Nundasuchus, a 9-foot-long carnivorous reptile with steak knife-like teeth and bony plates on the back. (Image: Virginia Tech)

Dr. Nesbitt said:

“The reptile itself was heavy-bodied with limbs under its body like a dinosaur, or bird, but with bony plates on its back like a crocodilian.”

Details about the discovery and naming of the prehistoric reptile have been published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology (citation below).

Dr. Nesbitt said:

“We discovered the partial skeleton in 2007 when I was a graduate student, but it took some years to piece the bones together as they were in thousands of pieces.”

The team was pleased to find a large number of skeleton bones. However, most of the skull was not recovered, despite three repeat visits to the site. They spent over 1,000 hours carefully piecing the jigsaw of bones back together and cleaning them.

Nundasuchus was found while Nesbitt and colleagues had been looking for prehistoric relatives of crocodiles and birds, i.e. it was a surprise find.

Dr. Nesbitt said:

“There’s such a huge gap in our understanding around the time when the the common ancestor of birds and crocodilians was alive – there isn’t a lot out there in the fossil record from that part of the reptile family tree. This helps us fill in some gaps in reptile family tree, but we’re still studying it and figuring out the implications.”

Dr Nesbitt collecting bones

Dr. Nesbitt collecting bones in Tanzania (Photo by Dr. Roger Smith, Iziko Museum, South Africa. Image from Virginia Tech)

The authors said the find was a bit of a “eureka moment” for them. As soon as they came upon it, Dr. Nesbitt realized it was a hitherto unknown species.

“Sometimes you know instantly if it’s new and within about 30 seconds of picking up this bone I knew it was a new species. I had hoped to find a leg bone to identify it, and I thought, This is exactly why we’re here’ and I looked down and there were bones everywhere. It turns out I was standing on bones that had been weathering out of the rock for hundreds of years – and it was all one individual of a new species,” he said.

Citation: “A new archosaur from the Manda beds (Anisian, Middle Triassic) of southern Tanzania and its implications for character state optimizations at Archosauria and Pseudosuchia,” Sterling J. Nesbitt, Christian A. Sidor, Kenneth D. Angielczyk, Roger M. H. Smith & Linda A. Tsuji. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Volume 34, Issue 6, 2014. DOI:10.1080/02724634.2014.859622.