Big Crocodiles of Bernissart Get New Name



Specimen RBINS R47 from Anteophtalmosuchus hooleyi, found in Bernissart (Photos : E. De Bast & T. Smith, RBINS)
Big Crocodiles of Bernissart Get New Name
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Reinout Verbeke

Three palaeontologists have re-examined and re-described two extremely well-preserved crocodile fossils from the Bernissart mine. They were excavated at the same time as the famous Iguanodons, who were their contemporaries 125 million years ago. The study shows that both crocodiles belonged to another species than previously assumed.

In 1879, museum employees and mineworkers dug up two fossils from big crocodiles in the Bernissart mine in Hainaut (Belgium). The animals lived 125 million years ago, alongside the famous herbivore dinosaur Iguanodon bernissartensis, of which around 30 specimens were found in the same mine.

The most complete of the two crocodiles, a magnificent animal measuring 2 meters in length and assembled in a life-like pose, is normally shown in our Dinosaur Gallery. In 2013, he was moved for analysis: to get it out of its 200 kg glass cage, 11 people were needed. The second specimen, which is missing its skull and is only removed from the sediment at one side, is shown in the Iguanodon Museum in Bernissart.

The two dark and shiny specimens were treated with an ammonium chloride powder to give them a neutral grey colour and to enhance contrast and relief. Then, they were photographed in high resolution.

Three specialists – Jeremy Martin (University of Lyon), Massimo Delfino (University of Turin) and our colleague Thierry Smith (RBINS) – studied the two crocodiles and wrote an extensive description in Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

New name

The Belgian palaeontologist Louis Dollo, the authority on the Bernissart Iguanodons at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, ascribed the crocodiles to Goniopholis simus. This name was attributed in 1878 by palaeontologist Richard Owen (the inventor of the word ‘dinosaur’), based on fossils found in England. Dollo thus never really described the Belgian fossils himself.

According to Martin, Delfino and Smith, the Bernissart crocodiles belong to another genus and species: Anteophtalmosuchus hooleyi. The legs bear a lot of resemblance to those of modern crocodiles, but their shield of hypodermic bony plates is similar to characteristics of other primitive crocodiles (in the families goniopholidae and pholidosauridae).

The two Bernissart crocodiles are the most complete of all the goniopholidae members found to date. The specimen that is usually shown in the Dinosaur Gallery, will soon be back on display (the other one was examined at the Iguanodon Museum itself).

This is the fifth article on fossil crocodiles in Europe, written by the three researchers. A crocodile from our Gallery of Evolution and one from the Dinosaur Gallery were the subject of two of those articles.

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