‘Tadpole from hell.’ Ancient predator’s skull pieced together after nearly 100 years

Experts have reconstructed the skull of a prehistoric predator that long puzzled scientists, and revealed a fearsome yet oddly familiar sight.

Roughly 330 million years ago, Crassigyrinus scoticus lurked in the coal swamps of what would later become Scotland and Canada — but just what the creature would have looked like has been a topic of debate for nearly a century.

The bones of Crassigyrinus, first discovered in Scotland, are badly damaged by time, crushed into pieces — which has made it difficult to reconstruct. But armed with modern methods, tools and knowledge, a team of researchers has done just that.

“Overall skull shape, the size and distribution of the teeth, sutural morphology … all suggest that Crassigyrinus was a powerful aquatic predator capable of hunting and subduing large prey,” researchers wrote in a new study published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

The skull is similar in shape and function to a crocodile’s, researchers said. The team used CT scans from four separate specimens to help recreate the skull.

Earlier studies of the creature suggested it would have had a tall, eel-like skull. But researchers now say that doesn’t check out.

“When I tried to mimic that shape with the digital surface from CT scans, it just didn’t work. There was no chance that an animal with such a wide palate and such a narrow skull roof could have had a head like that,” lead researcher Laura Porro told the National History Museum in a news release.

“Instead, it would have had a skull similar in shape to a modern crocodile, with its huge teeth and powerful jaws allowing it to eat practically anything which crossed its path.”

As a whole, Crassigyrinus had a strange appearance — at least in comparison with the animal kingdom of today. Its crocodile-esque head would have been attached to a slender body, measuring up to 10 feet in length, the Natural History Museum said, describing the animal as a “tadpole from hell.”

It was among the earliest tetrapods, the first wave of animals to adapt for life on land, the study said.

But Crassigyrinus stayed in the water, meaning its ancestors never completed the transition to land, they simply returned to their aquatic lifestyle — similar to whales and dolphins, according to the release.

In addition to its powerful jaws, Crassigyrinus was equipped with large eyes that allowed it to see in low light, and lateral lines to sense movement in the water, Porro told the museum.

But there is still a burning question left unanswered. Why is there a gap at the front of the predator’s snout?

“Unfortunately, we can’t be sure what was in this gap because there’s nothing preserved there, and nothing alive today is closely related enough to Crassigyrinus to definitely know,” Porro said. “What is clear is that these animals had very well-developed senses, so it stands to reason that it might have had another sensory organ at the front of its snout.”

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