Oct. 25 (UPI) -- Scientists have discovered the first new species of crocodile in nearly 85 years.
Matthew Shirley from Florida International University's Tropical Conservation Institute led a team of researchers to study crocodiles in the wild and in captivity in six African countries. They were studying the DNA and physical characteristics of slender-snouted crocodiles in Central Africa and West Africa. That's when they stumbled upon a difference: each region had two distinct species of slender-snouted crocodiles.
"Recognizing the slender-snouted crocodile as actually comprised of two different species is cause for great conservation concern," Shirley said in a press release.
At first, the West African and Central African slender-snouted crocodiles appear quite similar, but a closer look reveals differences in their skull shapes and scales, which supports evidence of the species distinction.
One reason for the glaring oversight is a lack of exposure researchers have to the species. Conservation programs understudy Central African slender-snouted crocodiles because of their remote location and their ability to camouflage themselves well in that region's habitat.
"We estimate only 10 percent of slender-snouted crocodiles occur in West Africa, effectively diminishing its population by 90 percent," Shirley said. "This makes the West African slender-snouted crocodile one of the most critically endangered crocodile species in the world."
The team, which includes researchers from the University of Florida and the University of Iowa, published their findings in the journal Zootaxa.
The challenge now for Shirley and other scientists is how to preserve the endangered West African crocodile species
"We hope that this better understanding of slender-snouted crocodile evolution and taxonomy draws much-needed attention to the plight of this species, which has long been recognized as the least known crocodilian in the world," says Shirley.