A fossilized tail uncovered in Hungary may help researchers better understand crocodile evolution, according to a new report published in the journal PeerJ. There were two types of ancient, Jurassic-age crocodiles. One had dinosaur-like armor and a set of limbs specifically adapted to walking on land, while the other was much more dolphin-like in that it had a tail, fins, and a set of flippers.
The new 180-million-year-old fossil analyzed in the research sheds light on both because it comes from an intermediary species that sported both armor and a tail fin. As a result, it shows a side of the evolutionary tree that has previously gone unnoticed.
“This fossil provides a unique insight into how crocodiles began evolving into dolphin and killer whale-like forms more than 180 million years ago,” said study co-author Mark Young, a researcher at the University of Edinburgh, according to Tech Times.
The different traits are important because they reveal that Jurassic age crocodiles exhibited a large amount of diversity.
An international ream of researchers first found the fossil — which comes from a species known as Magyarosuchus fitosi — in Hungary during 1996. They managed to separate it from other known species because it had unique vertebra that formed part of the tail fin. That specific combination of a tail and armor is completely unique in the crocodile fossil record.
Crocodiles are interesting reptiles because, unlike other animals, they have barely changed from an evolutionary standpoint. The ones that existed hundreds of millions of years ago are extremely similar to the ones that are alive today.
“If we could step back in time 8 million years, you’d basically see the same animal crawling around then as you would see today in the Southeast,” said Evan Whiting, a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota who was not involved in the research, in a statement. “Even 30 million years ago, they didn’t look much different.”
This research is important because analyzing the creatures may give scientists a chance to understand how other species evolved and changed over time. The researchers plan to follow up on their new finding to if they can construct a better evolutionary tree and learn the way birds came from dinosaurs.