Nundasuchus songeaensis was a 9-foot-long carnivorous reptile with steak knife-like teeth, bony plates on the back, and legs that lie under the body. The basic meaning of Nundasuchus, is "predator crocodile," "Nunda" meaning predator in Swahili, and "suchus" a reference to a crocodile in Greek.
Nundasuchus songeaensis, a 9-foot-long carnivorous reptile with steak knife-like teeth and bony plates on the back. Credit: Virginia Tech
"The 'songeaensis' comes from the town, Songea, near where we found the bones," says Sterling Nesbitt, an assistant professor of geological sciences at Virginia Tech. "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. We discovered the partial skeleton in 2007 when I was a graduate student, but it took some years to piece the bones together as they were in thousands of pieces."
Although a large number of skeleton bones were found, most of the skull was not recovered despite three trips to the site and more than 1,000 hours spent painstakingly piecing the bones back together and cleaning them. Nundasuchus was found in southwestern Tanzania, while Nesbitt and a team of researchers were looking for prehistoric relatives of birds and crocodiles, but not really expecting to find something entirely new.
"There's such a huge gap in our understanding around the time when the 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 said. "This helps us fill in some gaps in reptile family tree, but we're still studying it and figuring out the implications."
The find itself was a bit of a "eureka moment" for the team. Nesbitt said he realized very quickly what he had found.
"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 said. "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."
The newly discovered albeit ancient reptile was named in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.