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‘Carolina Butcher’ — The huge croc that hunted on two legs

Carnufex carolinensis translates to “Carolina Butcher,” an appropriate name for this nine-foot tall beast with quite intimidating blade-like teeth in dozens. The ancestor of crocdylomorphs, today’s crocodiles, is described in a paper published recently in Scientific Reports.

“Carnufex lived in what is now North Carolina around the time the supercontinent Pangea was breaking apart,” lead author of the paper, Lindsay Zanno, told Discovery News. “The skull of Carnufex is slender and long-snouted with dozens of blade-like teeth. For all practical purposes, this was an animal skillfully adapted for slicing flesh from the bones of its victims.”

Zanno, who works at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences as director of the Paleontology & Geology Research Laboratory, and is also an assistant research professor at North Carolina State University, recovered pieces of the skull, spine and upper forelimb from what is called the Pekin Formation, in North Carolina’s Chatham County. This region was a wet and warm equatorial region during the Butcher’s heyday, and part of the massive supercontinent Pangea.

“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,” said Zanno.

Using 3D modelling, researchers managed to reconstruct the animal’s skull from the fragments found, filling in the missing bits with pieces from close relatives of Carnufex. With this high-tech model and other remains, the team concluded that Carnufex stood nine feet tall. It’s forelimbs are also quite puny, prompting researchers to suspect that it walked on two legs.

Consensus tree showing taxonomy and relationships of the pseudosuchian clade Loricata.

Consensus tree showing taxonomy and relationships of the pseudosuchian clade Loricata.

Exactly what this apex predator subsisted on is still unanswered because there isn’t any hard evidence in the form of bite marks or stomach contents. However, possible prey may have included armored reptiles called aetosaurs and dicynodonts, which were early relatives of mammals.

“The Triassic was a bit of an ecological Twilight Zone: too few plant eaters and an over abundance of predators meant that the hunters often became the hunted,” Zanno said. This predator-heavy ecosystem was decimated by extinction as the Triassic transitioned into the Jurassic Period, when crocodylomorphs evolved into small-bodied animals, while top predator positions were filled by the therapods. “Theropods were ready understudies for vacant top predator niches when large-bodied crocs and their relatives bowed out,” said Zanno. “Predatory dinosaurs went on to fill these roles exclusively for the next 135 million years.”

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