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Ancient crocodile relative unearthed in New Mexico

"These were some of the biggest predators at the time," said researcher Sterling Nesbitt.

By Brooks Hays
The newly named reptile species lived during the Triassic period in present day New Mexico. It stretched as much as 18 feet in length. Photo by Matt Celeskey
The newly named reptile species lived during the Triassic period in present day New Mexico. It stretched as much as 18 feet in length. Photo by Matt Celeskey

BLACKSBURG, Va., Sept. 9 (UPI) -- Scientists have discovered a new extinct reptile species that lived 212 million years ago in what's now New Mexico.

The new species, Vivaron haydeni, is a rauisuchid, a group of carnivorous archosaurs that lived during the Triassic period. It's the sixth rauisuchid species found in the American Southwest.

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Researchers first unearthed fossilized fragments of the ancient crocodile relative in 2009, but its bones remained encased in plaster and unidentified until recently. In 2014, a student and mentor at Virginia Tech began analyzing the fossils.

"Initially, I cleaned fossils in the lab and worked on a project reconstructing soft tissue structures using computed tomographic, or CT, scans on the computer," undergraduate researcher Emily Lessner, now a senior, said in a news release. "I began looking at Vivaron pretty soon after."

Lessner's work revealed jaw bones, skull fragments and hip-bones from three individuals, including two adults and one juvenile.

A smooth upper jaw bone helped researchers differentiate the new species from other rauisuchids.

The ancient reptiles are related to both dinosaurs and crocodiles. During the Triassic period, the four-legged creatures dwarfed most other species, stretching 12 to 18 feet long.

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"These were some of the biggest predators at the time, all dinosaurs were much smaller," said Sterling Nesbitt, an assistant professor of geosciences at Virginia Tech who aided Lessner's work.

The new species is named and described in a paper published this week in the journal PeerJ.

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