Found in limestone once destined for Italian kitchen counter-tops, are fossils that may have belonged to an unknown ancient crocodile species.
The fossils were originally discovered in 1955 in Ferrara, Italy, in a limestone quarry, when workers sliced a huge block into four slabs and found the bones trapped inside.
Before the slabs were transferred to two museums in Italy, scientists performed a cursory examination of the fossils, enough to determine that indeed they belong to an ancient crocodile.
A more recent analysis of the embedded bones shows a skull and a few vertebrae, belonging to a previously unknown species of 165-million-year-old prehistoric reptile, now known as Neptunidraco ammoniticus.
The animal turned out to be the oldest known member of Metriorhynchidae; a family of ancient marine crocodiles which walked the earth’s oceans for about 30 million years before going extinct,
Scientists feel that Metriorhynchids split with modern crocodile ancestors about 200 million years ago. Unlike the crocodiles of today, which have semi-aquatic lifestyles, scientists think N. ammoniticus was a fully marine predator which rarely came on land.
The 13-foot animal was comparable in size to modern crocodiles, though had a more hydrodynamic body, a more streamlined skull and a vertical tail that resembled those of fish or sharks.
Based on previous fossil discoveries of other Metriorhynchids species, researchers also suspect N. ammoniticus had flippers. Like dolphins and whales, they had to swim to the ocean surface to breathe, and not unlike sea turtles, they may have mounted up onto beaches once a year to lay their eggs.
N. ammoniticus was not an alpha predator among its ancient marine counterparts, but by today’s standards would be feared. For example, the crocodile cousin was dwarfed by top ocean predators like the short-necked plesiosaur Liopleurodon, which could grow to more than 80 feet.
Actually, fossils of Metriorhynchids have been discovered throughout the world, which suggests they roamed widely across ancient earth’s oceans.
Because of the size and shape of their teeth, it is hypothesized that Metriorhynchids such as N. ammoniticus fed on fish and squid and perhaps other sea reptiles.