Scientists have discovered a new species of alligator with a unique skull that existed in ancient Thailand up to 230,000 years ago.

In a study published in the Scientific Reports journal, the authors explain that the creature was closely related to the Chinese alligator, officially known as Alligator sinensis. Researchers identified the new species by examining a nearly complete fossilised skull – which they date to be younger than 230,000 years old – from Ban Si Liam, Thailand. The species has been named Alligator munensis, in reference to the nearby Mun River. Researchers examined the remains and investigated the evolutionary relationships between the creature and other species.

They compared its remains with those of 19 specimens from four extinct alligator species, as well as the living American alligator, Chinese alligator and spectacled caiman species.The newly discovered species had several unique skull features including a broad and short snout, a tall skull, a reduced number of tooth sockets and nostrils that are positioned far from the tip of the snout.Alligator munensis’ skull was found to share similarities with the Chinese alligator, such as the presence of a small opening in the roof the mouth, a ridge on the top of the skull, and a raised ridge behind the nostrils. The new study provides further insight into the evolution of Asian alligators. Researchers think that the two species are closely related and may have shared a common ancestor in the lowlands of the Yangtze-Xi and Mekong-Chao Phraya river systems. An increase in the elevation of the southeastern Tibetan Plateau between 23 and five million years ago is suspected to have led to the separation of their common ancestors, resulting in the evolution of two separate species. The authors observed that the ancient alligator has large tooth sockets towards the back of its mouth which indicates that it may have possessed large teeth that could have been capable of crushing shells.

Scientists have discovered a new species of alligator that existed in ancient Thailand by studying a 230,000-year-old skull (top) compared with a Chinese alligator (bottom) (Picture: Márton Rabi)

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