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Snappy evolution was behind success of ancient crocodiles, research suggests


Crocodiles once flourished on land and in the oceans as a result of fast evolution, researchers suggest.

Modern crocodiles are predators living in rivers, lakes and wetlands – grabbing fish, reptiles, birds and mammals with their long snouts and powerful jaws.

However ancient crocodiles were once much more varied because of rapid evolution, according to a new study.

Ancient crocodiles came in a dizzying array of forms

Researchers from the University of Bristol found that in the time of the dinosaurs, some crocodiles experimented with dolphin-like adaptations to living in the oceans, and others lived on land as fast-moving plant-eaters.

They studied more than 200 skulls and jaws, including fossils from the entire 230 million year history of crocodiles and their extinct relatives.

The experts explored shape variation to reveal differences between species and analysed how fast crocodile groups changed through time.

They found that some extinct crocodile groups, including dolphin-like thalattosuchians and small land-dwelling notosuchians, evolved very fast over many millions of years.

The creatures also underwent great changes to their skulls and jaws as they expanded into niches today occupied by other animal groups, particularly mammals.

According to the study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the research shows that crocodiles, alligators and gharials, the only living crocodilians, are more conservative than these extinct fossil groups, and evolved steadily for the last 80 million years.

However, there is no evidence for a slow-down in their evolution and they are not “living fossils”, as once thought.

Lead author Dr Tom Stubbs, a senior research associate at the University of Bristol’s School of Earth Sciences said: “Crocodiles and their ancestors are an incredible group for understanding the rise and fall of biodiversity.


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