Scientists have discovered a new species of giant carnivorous reptile that trod the Earth long before the emergence of dinosaurs.
Dubbed Nundasuchus, a mashup of Greek and Swahili that loosely means "predator crocodile," the 9-foot long creature's standout features were teeth like steak knives, bony back plates and legs that lay underneath its body, say researchers at Virginia Tech.
It was a member of a class of large reptiles living on Earth before dinosaurs arrived and took over, says Sterling Nesbitt, an assistant professor of geological sciences.
"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," he says.
The fossil remains were discovered in southwestern Tanzania near the town of Songea, which is why the creature's full scientific moniker is Nundasuchus songeaensis.
Researchers searching for prehistoric ancestors of modern-day crocodiles and birds unearthed the partial skeleton of Nundasuchus.
"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 says. "This helps us fill in some gaps in reptile family tree, but we're still studying it and figuring out the implications."
The researchers have described their finding in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
Despite three returns to the site where the fossil remains were found and more than 1,000 hours spent cleaning and piecing the bones back together, the fossil specimen is still incomplete, especially in terms of the skull.
Still, Nesbitt says, the finding was something of a "eureka moment" for the team digging at the site.
"Sometimes you know instantly if it's new and within about 30 seconds of picking up this bone I knew it was a new species," he says. "I had hoped to find a leg bone to identify it, and I thought, 'This is exactly why we're here' and I looked down and there were bones everywhere.
"It turns out I was standing on bones that had been weathering out of the rock for hundreds of years -- and it was all one individual of a new species."
It was not an altogether new experience for Nesbitt, who has been involved in naming 17 different species of dinosaurs, dinosaur relatives and reptiles, seven of them his own discoveries.