Jorgo Ristevski

Scientists harness the mind of the world’s ‘cutest’ miniature ancient crocodile

Weighing up to 2 kilograms and between 70 and 90 centimeters, Trilophosuchus rackhami would have been the “cutest reptile” to roam northwestern Queensland about 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 connections to species in other parts of the world.

The ‘cutest little’ crocodile

in 1993, Trilophosuchus rackhami was described and named in honor of noted Riversleigh Fossil Center manager Alan Rackham.

The condition Trilophosuchus translates to ‘three-crested’ while the rackhami 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 was a small early Miocene mekosuchine crocodile in northern Australia.(Supplied: Australian Museum)

University of Queensland Faculty of Science PhD candidate Jorgo Ristevski led the study of 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 cutest looking animal. I think we’re missing something because it’s extinct.

“It would have been the cutest little reptile.”

A young man, dressed in a blue shirt, holds a fossilized prehistoric crocodile skull.
University of Queensland PhD candidate Jorgo Ristevski led the study on the skull of Trilophosuchus rackhami.(Delivered: University of Queensland)

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

little crocodile
The skull was well preserved.(Provided: Jorgo Ristevski)

“For one of the studies, I digitally reconstructed the brain cavity from… Trilophosuchus rackhami and found that it resembles that of some distantly related and possibly extinct terrestrial 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.

“This may indicate that Trilophosuchus rackhami spent more time on land than most living crocodiles.”

Important for future research

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

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

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

little crocodile sillouette
Trilophosuchus rackhami was a terrestrial animal unlike its semi-aquatic relatives.(Provided: Jorgo Ristevski)

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

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

“It’s exciting to think about what technology will improve over the next 30, 40, 50 years to support further research.

crocodile digital
CT scan technology enabled a detailed analysis of the creature’s skull.(Provided: Jorgo 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 that.

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

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