Scientists think of the “most charming” crocodile Trilophosuchus rackhami

Weighing up to 2 kilograms and measuring between 70 and 90 centimeters, Trilophosuchus rackhami would have been the “most fascinating reptile” roaming north-west Queensland around 13.5 million years ago, scientists say.

For the first time, researchers have used CT scanning technology to reveal previously unknown details about the creature’s anatomy and its relationships with species in other parts of the world.

The cutest little crocodile

In 1993 Trilophosuchus rackhami was described and named in honor of the well-known manager of the Riversleigh Fossil Center Alan Rackham.

The term Trilophosuchus translates as “three crest” while rakhams represents Mr. Rackham’s surname.

The prehistoric miniature crocodile was most likely a terrestrial reptile that lived in the forests that once covered much of the region.

Trilophosuchus rackhami is a small, soft-bodied crocodile from the Early Miocene of northern Australia.(Courtesy: The Australian Museum)

PhD student Yorgo Ristevski from the University of Queensland’s Faculty of Life Sciences led the research, which examined the skull of Trilophosuchus rackhami.

“Through a micro-CT scan of the beautifully preserved skull, we were able to digitally separate each bone,” Mr Ristevski said.

“It would have been the most adorable looking animal. I think we’re missing out because it’s gone.

“That would have been the cutest little reptile.”

A young man wearing a blue shirt holds a fossilized prehistoric crocodile skull.
University of Queensland PhD candidate Yorgo Ristevski led the research, which examined the skull of Trilophosuchus rackhami.(Provided by: University of Queensland)

Mr. Ristevski was able to make connections between Trilophosuchus rackhami and other species from around the world.

Small crocodile skull
The skull was well preserved.(Supplier: Yorgo Ristevski)

“For one of the studies, I made a digital reconstruction of the brain cavity of Trilophosuchus rackhami and found that it resembles that of some distantly related and potentially terrestrial extinct crocodiles from Africa and South America that existed 50 to 100 million years ago,” he said.

“We were quite surprised to find this because, evolutionarily speaking, Trilophosuchus rackhami is more closely related to today’s crocs.

“It could mean that Trilophosuchus rackhami spent more time on land than most living crocodiles.”

Important for future research

Mr Ristevski said the findings would be useful in interpreting the evolutionary relationships between extinct crocodiles in future research.

“Research like this helps us better understand the evolutionary relationships of Trilophosuchus and other extinct crocodiles,” he said.

“We can see how crocodiles have evolved over millions of years, not just in Australia but in a more global context.”

small crocodile silhouette
Trilophosuchus rackhami is a terrestrial animal unlike its semi-aquatic relatives.(Supplier: Yorgo Ristevski)

Changing technology has also played a crucial role in learning more about the evolution of species, Mr Ristevski said.

“We were only able to conduct this research because of the availability of CT technology,” he said.

“It’s exciting to think what technology will advance in the next 30, 40, 50 years to help further research.”

digital crocodile
Computer-scanning technology allows detailed analysis of the creature’s skull.(Supplier: Yorgo Ristevski)

“In science, you can’t answer every question with one study. For every question you potentially answer, there are 10 more questions that arise from it.

“And that’s exciting — science is just like a never-ending search for answers.”

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