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Triassic Era 'Swamp Monster' Found in West Texas

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Jan 30, 2014 02:34 PM EST
The fossilized head of crocodile-like “swamp monster” from the Triassic period is a new species of phytosaur,
The fossilized head of crocodile-like “swamp monster” from the Triassic period is a new species of phytosaur, according to the scientists that unearthed it in the wilderness of west Texas. (Photo : Lacey Nobles)

The fossilized head of crocodile-like "swamp monster" from the Triassic period is a new species of phytosaur, according to the scientists that unearthed it in the wilderness of west Texas.

The phytosaur somehow died in an oxbow lake and sank to the bottom about 205 million years ago, becoming entombed in sediment and soil.

All that remains of the phytosaur is its head, but that was enough for Texas Tech University paleontologists to identify it as a new species. Although it took more than a decade to do it.

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Doug Cunningham, a field research assistant at the Museum of Texas Tech University, found part of creature's head sticking out of the ground at an excavation site in June 2001.

"It was really well preserved with the teeth and everything," Cunningham said. "Finding one with teeth is pretty rare. It was so odd, but when they come out of the ground, you have a long way to go to actually see what you have because they're still covered in matrix. We were all kind of in awe of it. It had this long, skinny snout. It was quite a bit different. It took me years to get it prepped and ready. At the time, I was working full-time and I did that on my days off."

Once the specimen was prepared, Cunningham and his colleagues, including Bill Mueller, assistant curator of paleontology at the museum, examined the skull and compared it to other known phytosaurs, determining it was a new species based on observing its skull, snout, and the shape of the bones on the back of its head.

While the west Texas of today is a dry, dusty place, in the Triassic period it was a vast swampland.

"A phytosaur resembles a crocodile," Mueller said. "They had basically the same lifestyle as the modern crocodile by living in and around the water, eating fish, and whatever animals came to the margins of the rivers and lakes. But one of the big differences is the external nares, the nose, is back up next to its eyes instead of at the end of its snout."

Mueller said they were able to determine that the new phytosaur species, which they named Machaeroprosopus lottorum after the Lott family who own the ranch on which the creature was discovered, is a female. Males have a distinctive bony crest on their snout, which this specimen lacks.

Based on the skull size, the paleontologists estimate the female phytosaur was 17 feet long from nose to tail tip.

A description of the new species and the research is published in Earth and Environmental Science Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

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