Not all fossils are great beauties. For every delicately-preserved feathered dinosaur or gorgeous fossil mammal with every bone still in articulation, there are dozens upon dozens of fossils that make paleontologists suck the air through their teeth in mock sympathy pain. That's just how it goes. But looks aren't everything. Even a clump of busted bone can reveal species totally unknown to us. 

The skull of Ieldraan melkshamensis, described by paleontologist Davide Foffa and colleagues, is the kind of fossil that might make you cringe. The Jurassic reptile's skull is preserved inside a concretion, the overall effect looking like the world's worst jigsaw puzzle. But enough of the skull remains that Foffa and coauthors were able to tell that it represents a previously-unknown form of marine crocodile that was swimming through Jurassic seas about 163 million years ago.

New prep work on the fossil - first collected in the 19th century and neglected since then - allowed Foffa and colleagues to detect this hidden croc. IIeldraan melkshamensis was one of many marine crocodiles that sculled through the oceans during the Jurassic, and analysis of this new fossil - as well as others - have allowed paleontologists to better understand how this long-lost group diversified. After looking at the teeth of these crocodiles and their evolutionary relationships, for example, Foffa and colleagues determined that marine crocodiles evolved a lifestyle of feeding on large prey at least four times. Apparently there was a seaborne smorgasbord just waiting to be eaten. 

Croc skull
The skull of Ieldraan. Credit: Foffa et al 2017

Fossil Facts

Name: Ieldraan melkshamensis

Meaning: Ieldraan means "Older One" in Old English, and melkshamensis is a reference to where the fossil was found.

Age: Jurassic, about 163 million years ago.

Where in the world?: Melksham, England. 

What sort of organism?: A marine crocodile called a metriorhynchid.

How much of the organism’s is known?: A damaged skull and part of the lower jaw.


Foffa, D., Young, M., Brusatte, S., Graham, M., Steel, L. 2017. A new metriorhynchid crocodylomorph from the Oxford Clay Formation (Middle Jurassic) of England, with implications for the origin and diversification of Geosaurini. Journal of Systematic Palaeontology. doi: 10.1080/14772019.1367730

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