A newly discovered reptile predator species is so ancient that it predates even the dinosaurs, helping to shed light on the ill-understood evolutionary relationship between dinos and reptiles, according to new research.

Nundasuchus songeaensis may look like a dinosaur, with its steak knife-like teeth and bony plates on its back, but as its name implies this species is actually a "predator crocodile." "Nunda" means predator in Swahili and "suchus" is a reference to a crocodile in Greek.

"The 'songeaensis' comes from the town, Songea, near where we found the bones," paleontologist Sterling Nesbitt from Virginia Tech added in a statement. "The reptile itself was heavy-bodied with limbs under its body like a dinosaur, or bird, but with bony plates on its back like a crocodilian."

The 9-foot-long specimen was actually first discovered back in 2007 in southwestern Tanzania, but it has taken researchers years to literally piece together the puzzle, given that there were thousands of fragments.

While N. songeaensis isn't a dinosaur itself, it is one of the largest reptiles that lived before dinosaurs rose to dominance. Better understanding this new species is crucial for learning more about the evolutionary history of dinosaurs and reptiles. Since this species existed before the rise of dinosaurs, scientists can better understand what Earth was like in the distant past.

"There's such a huge gap in our understanding around the time when the common ancestor of birds and crocodilians was alive - there isn't a lot out there in the fossil record from that part of the reptile family tree," Nesbitt said. "This helps us fill in some gaps in reptile family tree, but we're still studying it and figuring out the implications."

The findings are described in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

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