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A Middle Jurassic ‘sphenosuchian’ from China and the origin of the crocodylian skull

Abstract

The skull of living crocodylians is highly solidified and the jaw closing muscles are enlarged1, allowing for prey capture by prolonged crushing between the jaws. Living species are all semi-aquatic, with sprawling limbs and a broad body that moves mainly from side-to-side2; however, fossils indicate that they evolved from terrestrial forms. The most cursorial of these fossils3,4,5,6 are small, gracile forms often grouped together as the Sphenosuchia, with fully erect, slender limbs; their relationships, however, are poorly understood5,7,8,9,10. A new crocodylomorph from deposits in northwestern China of the poorly known Middle Jurassic epoch possesses a skull with several adaptations typical of living crocodylians. Postcranially it is similar to sphenosuchians but with even greater adaptations for cursoriality in the forelimb. Here we show, through phylogenetic analysis, that it is the closest relative of the large group Crocodyliformes, including living crocodylians. Thus, important features of the modern crocodylian skull evolved during a phase when the postcranial skeleton was evolving towards greater cursoriality, rather than towards their current semi-aquatic habitus.

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Figure 1: Results of a maximum parsimony phylogenetic analysis.
Figure 2: Junggarsuchus sloani holotype skull.
Figure 3: Postcranial skeleton of Junggarsuchus sloani.

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Acknowledgements

Field work was supported by the National Geographic Society, the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the Jurassic Foundation, the Hilmar Sallee bequest, George Washington University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Study of the specimen was supported by the National Science Foundation Division of Earth Sciences. We thank D. Ma and W. Chen of the Changji Autonomous Prefecture and M. Zhu and X. Zhao of the IVPP for facilitating our work.

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Correspondence to James M. Clark.

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Supplementary Information

Containins the characters used in the phylogenetic analysis of Junggarsuchus and their distributions among 14 taxa of crocodylomorphs. (DOC 31 kb)

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Clark, J., Xu, X., Forster, C. et al. A Middle Jurassic ‘sphenosuchian’ from China and the origin of the crocodylian skull. Nature 430, 1021–1024 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature02802

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