Connecticut's Ancient Crocodilian Creature

A fossilized skull found in a Connecticut park appears to belong to a crocodilelike reptile that lived 212 million years ago, about the time that dinosaurs began to roam the Earth. The skull, unveiled at a press conference on 9 November, is the first of its kind unearthed in North America.

Paul Olsen, a paleontologist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York, found the skull in March 1995 at Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill, Connecticut. "The fossil was just lying out there waiting to be seen," he says. The skull appears to have belonged to a 51-centimeter-long reptile that competed with early dinosaurs for food. The crocodilelike reptile probably had a large head and a long-toothed snout, Olsen says.

"This is an absolute first for North America and absolutely unexpected," says Hans-Dieter Sues, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada. It resembles only one other fossil, a skull found in 1894 in Scotland. That creature lived some 225 million years ago, suggesting that this kind of crocodilelike reptile or related species survived longer than paleontologists had suspected, Olsen says.

The find is unlikely to alter the view of life in the early Triassic period, a time of a great diversity of life forms. But it does cast doubt on the belief that the U.S. East Coast is a poor source of fossils, Sues says: "It just takes more patience and energy to find fossils on the East Coast, but they are there."