(CN) – For more than 90 years, scientists knew of the New Guinea crocodile, but new research revealed Wednesday found another species of crocodile on the island, a 10-foot-long croc that researchers say will help expand our knowledge of the large predatory animals.
Papua New Guinea, located about 1,468 miles north of Australia, is home to a wealth of indigenous species that biologists are just now beginning to understand. One of those, the New Guinea croc, was first documented in 1928. In 2014, the late University of Florida researcher Philip Hall suspected that the croc was actually two different species, one in the northern part of the island and one in the south.
Although Hall died before he could finish his research, the mantle was taken up by Chris Murray, assistant professor at Southeastern Louisiana University, and Caleb McMahan, scientist at the Field Museum. McMahan and Murray carried on Hall’s work, who noted marked differences in nesting and mating habits of the island’s crocs. The two began work by studying the physical traits of the crocs rather than their behavior.
“Chris does a lot of work on crocodilians, and I do a lot of evolutionary work, often with morphology, or the animals’ physical features,” McMahan said. “Chris studies morphology too, so it was continuing along with a lot of the projects we were doing, but then lo and behold, it’s this brand new crocodile species.”
The two scientists examined 51 skulls of New Guinea crocs spread across the collections of seven different museums.
“There are new species out there but a lot of them are sitting in drawers and cabinets in museums, and it just takes time to look at them and figure that out,” McMahan said.
After analyzing the skulls and noticing key differences, the researchers took to a zoological park to see if they could spot those same differences in living specimens.
“They have live individuals of what’s called novaeguineae, and we were able to look at those and say, ‘Oh yeah, this matches the north and this matches the south!’ I thought that was super cool,” McMahan said.
The newly discovered crocodile species, named Crocodylus halli for the late Hall, may help scientists create better conservation assessments, the researchers said.
“It could be that when we consider crocs on the whole island, they might be okay, but if we start looking at a species north of the highlands and one south of the highlands you might find more habitat degradation and population threats in one over the other. This highlights the importance of attention to ecology and conservation for both lineages,” McMahan said.
Although the research involved was extensive and took some time, Murray said the easiest part was naming the new species after Hall.
“I think it was really special for me in particular, I’ve been reading his work since the beginning of my career in academia, in my first year as a Master’s student, so to come full circle and help contribute to his work was meaningful,” Murray said. “Being able to name the thing that he initially pondered after him was even more meaningful.”