Croc fossil named after Kipling

The fossilised skull of an ancient beast that snapped at dinosaurs from the swamps of what is now the south coast of England belongs to a previously unknown species of crocodile.

A passing expert chanced upon the well-preserved skull—somewhat flattened after 130million years in limestone—when it was exposed by a rockfall on England’s Dorset coast in 2007.

In the five years since, researchers at Bristol University have pored over the specimen and compared it with other fossils, before finally declaring the creature a species new to science.

The metre-long skull was the dangerous front end of a forerunner of modern saltwater crocodiles, measuring 3.5m from nose to tail.

The reptile fed on fish, turtles and other creatures in the warm swamps and lagoons that dotted tropical forests stalked by dinosaurs.

Accidental discovery
Richard Edmonds, earth science manager at Dorset’s Jurassic Coast world heritage site, made the discovery during a routine check of coastal erosion.

“Sticking out of the rock was this cross-section through the skull,” he said. Half the skull was recovered from a block of rock that crashed on to the beach and the rest was excavated from the cliff face in a three-person, six-hour operation, after landowners granted the team permission.

Edmonds passed the remains to palaeontologist Mike Benton at Bristol University and his former PhD student, Marco Brandalise de Andrade, who checked them against previous discoveries.

“This is a pretty remarkable specimen. It’s not crushed, it’s in good condition and it’s a new species,” said Benton. “This just goes to show the benefits of eternal vigilance, even in these well picked-over areas.”

The creature has been named Goniopholis kiplingi. Goniopholis means “angled scale” in Greek and kiplingi is in honour of Rudyard Kipling, author of The Jungle Book.

Fossil hunters uncovered other specimens of Goniopholis in England more than a century ago. The latest creature is distinguished by differences in the skull and upper jawbone. Details of the discovery are reported in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.

“The exciting thing is that the fossil record is far from complete. We know lots about the more common fossils, but so few of the animals that ever lived became fossilised that there’s always the prospect of finding new species,” said Edmonds.

“Clambering up the cliffs is never a good idea, but the beaches are the safest and best places to search for fossils,” he said.

“The cliffs are incredibly soft and landslides get eroded away at a very rapid rate, so you can pick up beautiful fossils lying on the beach.

“Even in 200 years’ time, people will still be making new discoveries, probably at the same rate we are today.”—

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