In 1996, amateur collector Attila Fitos unearthed a precious fossil while hiking on a mountain range in north-west Hungary. The specimen, a large portion of backbone, dates back 180 million years ago and belongs to a prehistoric crocodile species that prowled the oceans during the Jurassic Period.
But this is no ordinary fossil, notes Dr. Mark Young, from the University of Edinburgh in the U.K. The 180-million-year-old crocodilian fossil boasts unusual features that herald it as the “missing link” in the crocodile family tree.
Stored in a Budapest museum during all these years, the ancient crocodile fossil has a peculiar-looking vertebra on its tail fin which suggests this prehistoric predator sported a dolphin-like tail. At the same time, the 180-million-year-old fossil reveals the creature had a bony armor on its back and was adapted to walking on land.
Based on these discoveries, the ancient fossil was identified as a new species that links the two main families of prehistoric crocodiles living on the planet during the Jurassic.
The new species, dubbed Magyarosuchus fitosi in honor of the fossil’s discoverer, shared physical features with both the armor-plated crocodiles that roamed the land and the marine crocodilian species that ruled the Jurassic oceans.
In a new study published in the journal PeerJ, Young and his colleagues from Hungary and Germany argue that Magyarosuchus fitosi captures the transition between land-dwelling and marine reptiles.
The team shows that this impressive creature was nearly five meters long (or almost 16.5 feet) and had a heavy armor covering its back and belly, just like many of the crocodile species we see today.
Although it was adapted for walking on land, Magyarosuchus fitosi was also very agile underwater. Similarly to modern marine animals, the crocodile had a tail fin and flippers. These helped the creature navigate the ancient oceans in search for prey, which stood no change against the crocodile’s large, pointed teeth.
Because of its amazing adaptations, Young believes that Magyarosuchus fitosi can shed more light into how an ancient species of crocodiles branched off from the rest of the family tree and evolved into dolphin-like creatures.
“This fossil provides a unique insight into how crocodiles began evolving into dolphin and killer whale-like forms more than 180 million years ago.”
As he points out in a news release issued by the university, Magyarosuchus fitosi stands as proof of the various and creative evolutionary mechanisms found in nature.
“The presence of both bony armor and a tail fin highlights the remarkable diversity of Jurassic-era crocodiles,” he said.