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SA scientist scores with croc find
24 August 2010

Zubair Jinnah's discovery: a fossil of an ancient crocodile (Photo: Getty Images)

Fossils of an ancient crocodile found in Tanzania by a Johannesburg scientist have made it into the highly regarded Nature journal.

JOBURG scientist Zubair Jinnah's work on the fossils of an ancient crocodile that he discovered in Tanzania, has been published in the world's most highly cited interdisciplinary science journal, Nature.

Zubair Jinnah is an associate lecturer in the School of Geosciences at Wits University
Zubair Jinnah is an associate lecturer in the School of Geosciences at Wits University

Jinnah, who is a sedimentologist and an associate lecturer at Wits University's School of Geosciences, discovered the fossils in 2008 in the Rukwa Rift Basin in Tanzania while on a project with the former Wits scientist, Eric Roberts.

The unusual creature is said to be changing the picture of animal life 100 million years ago in sub-Saharan Africa.

"I discovered the specimen, which has an articulated skull, vertebrae and limb elements, whereas previously discovered material found by our research team of the same species in previous years was of isolated or incomplete elements," said Jinnah, whose research focuses on fossil-bearing sedimentary rocks.

"I also described the geology of the site where the most complete fossil came from in order to understand how it was preserved and why it was so complete. This specimen will now form the holotype [reference material] of the new species."

On the day of the fossil find, Jinnah and the team were viewing an area they had never been to before. "At the time of the discovery, three or four small vertebrae - each one about a centimetre across - were sticking out of a cliff-face. At that stage, we had no idea how much more was embedded until we did the excavation a few days later."

The newly discovered mammal-like crocodile lived on land and fed on insects
The newly discovered mammal-like crocodile lived on land and fed on insects

In 2007 and again in 2008, Jinnah assisted Roberts in his geological work, with the aim of reconstructing past environments by looking at sedimentary rocks and also determining how old the rocks were. The information obtained helps palaeontologists better understand past ecosystems.

Jinnah is one of 10 co-authors of the scientific paper on the ancient crocodile; the lead author is Patrick O'Connor, the associate professor of anatomy at the Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine.

"If you only looked at the teeth, you would not think this was a crocodile. You would wonder at whether it is a strange mammal or mammal-like reptile," said O'Connor.

The team describes the new species of notosuchian crocodyliform as a small animal whose head would fit in the palm of a person's hand. It was not as heavily armoured as other crocodiles, except for along the tail. Its slender limbs suggest that the creature was quite mobile. Other aspects of its anatomy suggest that it was a land-dwelling creature that likely feasted on insects and other small animals to survive.

The new species is not a close relative of modern crocodilians, which include alligators and crocodiles. It is a member of a side branch of the crocodyliform lineage that lived during the Mesozoic Era, which is also known as the Age of Dinosaurs. It is dated from about 250 million years ago to about 67 million years ago.

According to the 2009 Journal Citation Report Science Edition, Nature is the most highly cited interdisciplinary science journal in the world. It is a weekly international journal that publishes the finest peer-reviewed research in all fields of science and technology. This is done on the basis of its originality, importance, interdisciplinary interest, timeliness, accessibility, elegance and surprising conclusions.

The scientific paper on Jinnah's fossil, is available online.

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Last Updated on 03 September 2010