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Travel back in time to the Late Triassic, and the waters were home to animals you’d easily mistake for crocs. This episode, we discuss the fossil record, lifestyles, and uncanny croc-ness of Phytosaurs.
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Crocs Before Crocs
Phytosaurs are an extinct group of carnivorous reptiles. They’re famous for being found on nearly all continents; they’re famous for being among the most abundant and important predators of the Late Triassic; but mostly, they’re famous for their uncanny resemblance to crocodilians.
If you caught a glimpse of a living phytosaur (or even a skeleton), you could easily mistake it for a croc. They have large, low bodies, sprawling limbs, long tails, long toothy snouts, and backs covered in osteoderm armor. Phytosaurs even came in similar sizes to crocs, ranging from a few meters long to over 10 meters. It’s an incredible case of convergent evolution.
But despite these differences, phytosaurs are NOT crocs. They’re generally thought to be an earlier branch of archosaurs, or perhaps close relatives of true archosaurs. And since the entire phytosaur fossil record is restricted to the Triassic Period, this means that not only are phytosaurs not all that closely related to crocs, they also went extinct more than 100 million years before true crocodilians as we know them evolved.
Looks can be deceiving, and some scientists have cautioned that it might not be accurate to assume phytosaurs lived exactly like modern crocs just because of their physical similarity. That said, there is evidence that, in many ways, phytosaurs were doing many of the same things crocs would do millions of years later.
Phytosaurs were predators. This is evident from the shape and wear patterns of their teeth, from occasional phytosaur stomach contents, and from some examples of phytosaur bite marks on other animals. Most of them were also probably quite capable swimmers, and the fact that their eyes and nostrils are elevated on the skull suggests they spent lots of their time submerged just under the surface like modern crocs do. Some phytosaurs were well-adapted for a more aquatic lifestyle, like Mystriosuchus with its more paddle-like limbs, and certain others are thought to have perhaps been more terrestrial, like Nicrosaurus.
Sometimes, multiple phytosaur fossils are found in close proximity, which has led paleontologists to wonder if some phytosaurs might have been gregarious, gathering in groups like some crocs do today. At least one case of young and old phytosaurs found together might be an indication of parental care. If that’s true, then phytosaurs might have been even more croc-like than their anatomy alone would suggest!
Diandongosuchus—the strange-faced transitional phytosaur
Brain anatomy convergence between crocodylians and phytosaurs
Phytosaurs, (mostly) gharial-snouted reptiles of the Triassic
Phytosauria, a major overview from 2013 (technical)
If you enjoyed this topic and want more like it, check out these related episodes:
- Episode 2 – Crocodilians Past and Present
- Episode 70 – Convergent Evolution
- Episode 15 – The end-Triassic Mass Extinction
- Episode 61 – Behavior in the Fossil Record
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