A reconstruction of Carnufex carolinensis. (Jorge Gonzales)

A new species found in North Carolina is one of the oldest and largest crocodile relatives ever known.

Back before dinosaurs were the big bads of our continent, Carnufex carolinensis ruled the scene. At nine feet long and walking on its hind legs, this croc would have been a fierce predator 230 million years ago. Researchers described the species (which translates to "Carolina Butcher," which is awesome) for the first time Thursday in Scientific Reports.

[First ever evidence of a swimming, shark-eating dinosaur]

Its bones may have been found in a quarry, but back in the Butcher's day North Carolina was a lush, warm, wet region just beginning to pull away from the supercontinent of Pangea. And in that region, it seems, an upright crocodile roamed.

The Carnufex carolinensis fossil was actually discovered a decade ago, but its bones have been sitting in the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences ever since.


This image shows a reconstructed skull of Carnufex carolinensis. 3-D surface models of skull bones are shown in white. Grey areas are missing elements reconstructed from close relatives of Carnufex. (Lindsay Zanno)

"When we got the bones out and prepared them, we found out that it was actually a really cool species," said Lindsay Zanno, assistant professor at North Carolina State University and lead author of the new research paper. "It was one of the oldest and largest members of crocodylomorph -- the same group that crocodiles belong to -- that we've ever seen. And that size was really surprising."

Most croc relatives from that time were smaller in size and seemed lower on the food chain. They were about the same size -- and threat to prey -- as a fox. But at nine feet long -- a height it stretched to fully by walking on two legs -- the Carolina Butcher would have been one of the fiercest animals around, if not the very fiercest.

[Peru was a crocodile paradise before the Amazon River went and ruined it]

In other regions, early dinosaurs were vying for top-dog status, causing something of a predator-pile-up. But this is the first time a croc ancestor has been shown in the mix.

"It was clearly a top predator," Zanno said. "That's a niche we didn't know animals like this were filling."

So why don't we hang out with bipedal crocodiles of doom today? As the Triassic period ended, this glut of predators gave way to the reign of the dinosaurs. Big burly crocs couldn't compete, but the little guys lived to see another day.

MORE READING:

Bigfoot: still imaginary, probably not an undiscovered species of bear

Why are there so many freaking beetles? Science may finally have the answer.

Scientists map 48 bird genomes, unlocking their dinosaur pasts