Planet Earth

Research Reveals the Anatomy of Australia’s Ancient Crocodiles

A study finds new facts about a tiny species of prehistoric croc.

By Sam WaltersAug 29, 2022 3:00 PM
Trilophosuchus
Part fossil of Trilophosuchus rackhami skull. (Credit: Jorgo Ristevski)

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Around 13.5 million years ago, an unusually small species of crocodile roamed through Queensland, Australia. And a new paper published in The Anatomical Record and The Journal of Anatomy says that the analysis of the species’ skull reveals novel findings about its size, shape and stomping grounds.

Studying a Strange, Small Croc

Though there are only two snaggle-toothed species — the saltwater crocodile and the freshwater crocodile — in Australia today, an amazing diversity of ancient crocs once ruled over Queensland. In fact, these species came in a variety of sizes and shapes and settled in a variety of niches outside of the traditional swamps and marshlands.

"If we could travel back in time to North Queensland 13 million years ago, not only would you need to watch out for crocodiles at the water’s edge, but you’d also have to make sure you didn’t step on them in the forest," says Steve Salisbury, a senior study author and paleontology professor at the University of Queensland, in a press release.

Aiming to uncover new information about these ancient crocs, Salisbury and a team turned to a small species known as Trilophosuchus rackhami. Known only from its fossilized skull, this long-extinct species is shrouded in secrets.

"This was a truly unique looking croc, with a short snout and three distinct ridges on the top of its skull," says Jorgo Ristevski, a primary study author and paleontology researcher at the University of Queensland, in a press release.

In the analysis, the team used state-of-the-art imaging techniques to surmise that T. rackhami remained less than four pounds and three feet long throughout its adult life, a size "which was very small compared to most present-day crocs," Ristevski says in a press release.

Moreover, the team’s analysis showed that the species’ skull was also uniquely shaped, indicating that T. rackhami spent its time tromping through terrestrial regions rather than aquatic ones.

"I digitally reconstructed the brain cavity of [T. rackhami] and found that it resembles that of some distantly related and potentially terrestrial extinct crocs from Africa and South America," Ristevski says in a press release. "This may indicate that [T. rackhami] spent more time on land than most living crocs."

Ultimately, the researchers say that their findings provide insight into ancient crocodile anatomy and activity. They could also contribute to further investigations of the evolution of extinct crocodilians sometime in the future.

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