Scientists discovered evidence of a new species of prehistoric swamp monsters that used to call swamplands of Pangea –now, West Texas — their home. The evidence is two fossilized skulls of a previously unknown species of phytosaurs. Phystosaurs were crocodile-like reptiles.
The two examples of this new species of phytosaur lived around 205 million years ago during the Triassic period, before they met their fates and were entombed in the sediments of an oxbow lake.
By the size of the two-foot-long snouts of the two skulls, scientists have estimated that these particular phytosaurs were approximately 17 feet (5.2 meters) in length. According to the National Geographic, the phytosaurs lived in a tropical rain forest environment, complete with conifers and tall ferns, much different from the West Texas of today.
The new species of phytosaurs, discovered in 2001, has been dubbed Machaeroprosopus lottorum because they were found on the ranch of the Lott family in the Texas panhandle. With long, narrow snouts more designed for preying upon fish and amphibians than larger animals, these phytosaurs were somewhat like modern-day gharials who ambush their prey.
Though the skulls of the new species were discovered in 2001, it took until now to verify that they were from a previously undiscovered species of phytosaur.
Even when the skulls were originally unearthed, Doug Cunningham, a co-author of the study and a field research assistant at the Museum of Texas Tech University, could tell that it looked “quite a bit different,” from the skulls of other phytosaur species.
Still, Cunningham could only work on removing the stony matrix from the skull he unearthed. He stated that it took him “years to get it prepped and ready.” He added that the only time he had available to do it was “on my days off.”
The uniqueness of the two skulls led to the attempts of the researchers to get them declared a new species, and finally, they have been successful. They suspect that there are still many more species of Triassic phytosaurs left undiscovered.
Study co-author Bill Mueller has stated that the larger of the two phytosaur skulls located in the Cooper Canyon area of Garza County, Texas, came from a phytosaur that likely was about 18 feet (five meters) long.
One thing that looked different about the two skulls is that they had openings at the top (supratemporal fenestras) which were in a different place than those on the skulls of previously discovered phytosaurs.
Unlike the skulls of alligators and crocodiles, the new species of phytosaur discovered had nostrils were located at the base of its snout, near its eyes, instead of at the end.The way that Mueller put it is that “the nose, is back up next to its eyes instead of at the end of its snout.”
According to the scientists who researched the skulls and wrote a study about them in the Earth and Environmental Science Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh journal, the two skulls are likely from a male and female of the species. The paleontologists think that because one of the skulls has a bony crest on it which goes from the nostrils to the tip of the beak, that it was a way for males to attract females.
While this may be true, there have only been a few examples of phytosaur skeletons ever discovered. If an intact phytosaur skeleton was discovered, and it had short, squat limbs, that would be the proof the paleontologists need to confirm that the species were swamp dwellers who lived in water. Phytosaurs became extinct in a mass extinction that occurred sometime during the Triassic-Jurassic period.
Swamp monsters, of a sort, did once live in West Texas. While they might have preyed on smaller land animals, their main choice of food was fish and amphibians, though they likely had a fierce monsterish appearance, somewhat like alligators and crocodiles. The new phytosaur species that was discovered in West Texas, called Machaeroprosopus lottorum, was definitely a swamp monster to the prey that it devoured.
Written by: Douglas Cobb