Cretaceous Crocodile unearthed in Dorset

The beautifully preserved skull of an ancient crocodile discovered on the Dorset coast has just gone on display at the Swanage Museum and Heritage Centre.  The 58cm skull is of a Goniopholis, a broad snouted semi-aquatic crocodilian the lived in the early Cretaceous, sharing the riverbanks with herds of Iguanodon.

The skull was found in April by Richard Edmonds, the Earth Science Manager for the Jurassic Coast World Heritage site, whilst inspecting a cliff fall at Swanage on the Dorset shoreline.  The post cranial elements were lying in the rubble with the rest of the skull retained with the cliff.  Working with local fossil hunters the skull was carefully removed, cleaned and will be on display for a few weeks at the local museum.  Scientists from Bristol University and the London museum of Natural History will then take the specimen away for further study, to see if this find represents a new species of ancient crocodile.

The Goniopholis Skull

Ancient DorsetCrocodile

Picture courtesy of 24hourmuseum.org.uk

A number of species of Goniopholis are known from Upper Jurassic and Lower Cretaceous sediments.  These animals are classified in the mesoeucrocodylia family, these ancient crocodiles ranged in size from 2-4 metres in length and are believed to be the direct ancestors of extant crocodilians.  The skull could have belonged to a G. crassidens.  Goniopholis crassidens was the first of this genus to be named and described.  It was Richard Owen who was given the task of classifying this animal, he completed this paper in 1841.  At around this time, Richard was beginning to comprehend that the huge extinct reptiles – Megalosaurus, Iguanodon and Hylaeosaurus were so different from the crocodiles, pterosaurs and marine reptiles that they deserved to be put into their own distinct order.  Richard Owen (along with many of his contemporaries) was beginning to recognise that these extinct animals needed their own order, the thought process that led to the naming of the Dinosaurs had begun!

Click here to read about the rivalry between scientists at the time the word Dinosauria was first used:  What’s in a name – the Classification of Dinosauria

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