My interview with Imperial College on the rise and fall of ancient dinosaur-eating crocodiles

While back in London recently for my PhD viva, the opportunity came up to speak with the Communications Office at Imperial College about some of my research. Naturally I pounced at the chance to discuss my research and broadcast it to a wider audience. The short audio for the interview is now online here, and we discuss everything from the impact of changing climates on biodiversity to giant, dinosaur-devouring crocodiles! Enjoy 🙂


Dr Jon Tennant studied these creatures as part of his PhD in theDepartment of Earth Science and Engineering. He was exploring the biodiversity and the extinction of some tetrapods, which is a classification for all creatures with four limbs.

Dr Tennant, who is also a science communicator and children’s author, looked at some of the most fearsome tetrapods of them all – crocodilians. These creatures, which alligators and crocodiles are modern ancestors of, lived on Earth over one hundred million years ago in the deserts, coasts, oceans and even the artic regions of our planet. Some, like the Sarchosuchus, were the size of double-decker buses, and going by the fossil evidence, fed on dinosaurs, who were rival ‘apex’ predators.

Dr Tennant discovered in his research that changes in sea level, brought on by fluctuations in the climate and continent movements, changed the world of tetrapods like the Sarchosuchus forever. Now, he is embarking on a six-month exploration of the planet, including some of the regions where modern crocodilians live. Colin Smith caught up with Dr Tennant to talk about his favourite ancient crocodilians and how changes in early Earth impacted on their biodiversity. 

Full podcast here and you can download the mp3 file here.

Brain anatomy convergence between crocodylians and their epic carnivorous cousins, the phytosaurs

If I ask you to think of a large, extinct carnivorous reptile, what do you think of? I’m gonna guess that pretty much all of you went straight for a T. rex, or if you’re a bit weird (or vegetarian), maybe a Stegosaurus.

But if you think back in time of when the dinosaurs were around, and especially when they were just getting kick-started, there were so many other bizarre and spectacular groups of animals around.

Let’s go back to the Late Triassic, around 230 to 200 million years ago. Earth was pretty different to how it was now – you wouldn’t recognise any of the modern groups we know so well like birds, mammals, and amphibians. The continents were in disguise too, collaborating to form the giant supercontinent Pangaea, which sat over the equator ready to rupture at any second (slash million years or so…)

One of these groups were called phytosaurs, and are hideously under-appreciated beasts. They were a group of large carnivores, closely related to the earliest dinosaurs and crocodiles. It has often been pointed out that they even look suspiciously similar to some modern crocodylians, such as gharials, as both share elongated, tooth-filled snouts. This snout form is known as a ‘longirostrine’ morphology. (source for images below)

But beyond this superficial similarity, we actually know very little about crocodylians and phytosaurs.

Research by Stefan Lautenschlager and Richard Butler aimed to change this by investigating the resemblance between phytosaurs and crocodylians in terms of the structure of their brain cases, research that has only recently become possible due to the wider application of CT scanning technology.

This method allows us to scan the fragile skulls of fossils, and reconstruct them as digital 3D images. From here, we can explore and compare their anatomy in details that was not possible beforehand, and opens up a whole new realm of research possibilities for palaeontologists.

Parasuchus (left) and Elbrachosuchus (right) - physical specimens and digital representations!

Parasuchus (left) and Elbrachosuchus (right) – physical specimens and digital representations!

What they found is that phytosaurs have a very unusual and near-unique endocranial anatomy (the endocranium is the basal part of the skull that surrounds the brain). They have a really elongate olfactory tract, which means that they probably had super-reptilian senses of smell. The general structure of the brain architecture was also arranged as a series of longitudinal segments, a very distinct feature for phytosaurs.

Rather neatly though, it seems that modern crocodilians and their ancestors, collectively known as Crocodyliformes, share this general endocranial morphology. Modern crocodylians, including Crocodylus and Alligator are similar, as are other longirostrine and now extinct species including Pholidosaurus and Cricosaurus. Like phytosaurs, these extinct species would have spent all or most of their time out to sea.


Endocranial anatomy of Ebrachosuchus neukami


Endocranial anatomy of Parasuchus angustifrons

Differences between the endocranial structures in phytosaurs can likely be explained by differences in their sensory evolution, related to adaptations to different modes of life and behaviours. For example, we might expect that phytosaurs that spend more time in water have greater sensory adaptations towards detecting movement of prey in lakes and rivers.

We’re only just beginning to understand the ecology and evolution of phytosaurs, and this study provides an exciting new step. By comparing them with crocodylians, we gain an additional dimension by being able to look at how similar living, breathing relatives behave. This is so important for developing our collective understanding and vision of phytosaurs not as fossils, but as animals that were once real and alive.


Lautenschlager, S. & Butler, R. J. (2016) Neural and endocranial anatomy of Triassoc phytosaurian reptiles and convergence with fossil and modern crocodylians, PeerJ, DOI: 10.7717/peerj.2251.

Full disclosure: I was one of the referees for this paper.

This was originally posted here for the PLOS Paleo network.

How did wombat noses evolve?

One of the great questions in life. Clearly, this had been plaguing Alana Sharp, a postdoctoral researcher from Australia, so much that she had to go out and research it for herself!

In part of a memoir series published by the Victoria Museum, Alana carefully analysed the skulls of fossil and living wombats to see how their sinuses and brains evolved through time.

Sinuses are part of the skull that form as cavities due to resorption and deposition of bone. This happens due to the different stresses that impose upon the skull as it develops during growth.


Wombat! So cuddly.. (source)

Some marsupial species are known to have pretty large sinuses. Even extinct animals, such as Diprotodon, the largest marsupial ever discovered, had massive sinuses that extended all the way through the skull and over the brain towards the back. The evolutionary context for this has remained a mystery though, until now.

Continue reading

Why I think the Jurassic/Cretaceous boundary is super important

Mass extinctions are insanely catastrophic, but important, events that punctuate the history of life on Earth. The Jurassic/Cretaceous boundary, around 145 million years ago, was originally thought of to represent a mass extinction, but has subsequently been ‘down-graded’ to a minor extinction event based on new discoveries.

However, compared to other important stratigraphic boundaries, like the end-Triassic or the end-Cretaceous, both time periods representing mass extinction events, the Jurassic/Cretaceous (J/K) boundary actually remains really poorly understood. This is both in terms of what was going on with different animal groups at the time, and what environmental changes were occurring alongside this.

Well, I have a new research paper out now that synthesises more than 600 research articles, bringing them together to try and build a single picture of what was going on around this time! It’s free to read here, and is essentially the literature review from my thesis, or as I like to think of it, the justification for my existence as a researcher!

Continue reading

Your bite or mine?

This was originally posted at:

It rises from the dark waters like some behemoth from the deep, and lets out a blood-curdling roar. It’s feeding time. One of the most iconic scenes from Jurassic Park III is where the long-snouted, sail-backed giant theropod dinosaur Spinosaurus emerges from underwater to try, yet again, to eat our beleaguered rabble of misfortunates. It’s always been the way these dinosaurs have been portrayed, including one of Spinosaurus’ close cousins Baryonyx from the UK. With their long snouts, bulbous tips, and pointy teeth, it’s often been thought that spinosaurid dinosaurs were quite a lot like modern crocodiles. But how much of this is true?

Continue reading