A Texas Tech paleontologist and colleagues have discovered a new species of the Triassic-age dinosaur in the West Texas back country. The female phytosaur was found in an ancient oxbow lake created by a flood and unknown river where she sank to the bottom some 205 million years ago and about 120 feet away a larger male was found. Unfortunately their bodies have deteriorated with time, but their skulls remained. The article is available in Earth and Environmental Science Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
The researchers named this new phytosaur as Machaeroprosopus lottorum after the Lott family who owns the ranch where the dinosaur was found.
According to Bill Mueller, assistant curator of Paleontology at the Museum of Texas Tech University, “We found them in an area we’d been excavating in. I think we’ve gotten four skulls out of that area already. Doug Cunningham found this specimen, and then we dug it up. When he found it, just the very back end of the skull was sticking out of the ground. The rest was buried. We excavated it and brought it into the museum to finish preparation.”
Cunningham, a retired firefighter and currently a field research assistant at the museum, recalls finding the female skull back in June 2001. Initial inspection of the skull made Cunningham wonder if this discovery would add a new species to science. Cunningham notes, “It was really well preserved with the teeth and everything. 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.”
The researchers looked at the supratemporal fenestra, the snout and the shape of the bones at the back of head and made comparisons with other phytosaurs and determined that they had a new species. Mueller notes, today West Texas is an arid and dusty place, however during the Triassic period, it was a swampy, tropical rain forest. At that time, landmasses were converged to form Pangaea (super continent). The swampy lands were covered with conifers and ferns where phytosaurs could hide and wait for prey. Mueller goes on further to say, “A phytosaur resembles a crocodile. 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.”
According to Mueller, it is easy to tell the sexes of the phytosaurs because the male has a bony crest stretched from the nostrils by the eyes to the tip of the animal’s beak of which the female doesn’t have. Looking at the length of the female skull, which was 3 feet, Mueller and colleagues were able to determine that she was approximately 16 to 17 feet in length. They reported that the male was around 17 to 18 feet in length. The researchers also note that these phytosaurs had thin jaws, suggesting they hunted mostly fish as opposed to large prey.
Photo from Wikipedia.org