It's not quite a flying pig, but paleontologist Greg Buckley at Roosevelt University in Illinois and his colleagues recently unearthed something nearly as improbable: the skull of an ancient vegetarian crocodile.
The strange-looking fossil, extracted from 70-million-year-old rocks in Madagascar, has a short pug nose and a tall head. The most unusual feature of the new species, called Simosuchus, is its multi-cusped teeth, which resemble those of herbivorous dinosaurs like ankylosaurs and stegosaurs. Only when the researchers found an intact skull did they spot the key anatomic features— including bony plates in the skin, called osteoderms— that distinguish crocodiles from their dinosaur relatives. The remains suggest a full-grown Simosuchus was about three feet long. Its thickened head and neck were probably used for burrowing, not attacking.
Photo by Gregory Buckley
"We had no idea that anything like this existed," says Buckley. He suspects intense competition forced Simosuchus to give up the carnivorous ways of normal crocodiles. The fossil also offers a puzzle for geologists. It appears related to Uruguaysuchus, an extinct line of crocodiles found in Uruguay. Buckley thinks this implies that a land bridge connected Madagascar and South America 80 million years ago, long after the young Atlantic Ocean allegedly separated the two landmasses.