A newly discovered crocodile species in Central Africa has soft skin, unlike its relatives. It was previously considered to be the same species as its counterpart from Western Africa. Now scientists have found a way to explain why it has soft skin, which makes it different from its western relatives.
Scientists published their findings in the journal ZooTaxa. The Mecistrops cataphractus population, which resides in West Africa, is critically endangered. There are only about 500 animals remaining now that scientists have recognized their soft-skinned relatives as a separate species, according to National Geographic.
The newly discovered crocodile species from Central Africa is scientifically known as Mecistops leptorhynchus, or the slender-snouted crocodile. The scales of this species are smaller and softer, and they lack the bony nub found on other crocodile species’ skulls.
The two crocodile species had been classified under the same name since 1835, but study author Matt Shirley told Newsweek in an interview that scientists haven’t liked that classification for years. The newly discovered crocodile species can be found from Cameroon to Tanzania, and scientists believe it diverged from the other crocodile species about 8 million years ago due to intense volcanic activity. Shirley told National Geographic that the large mountainous boundary which resulted from that activity split the two crocodile species.
“Basically this involved me running around 14 different African countries from 2006-2012, and I have not left the field since,” he told Newsweek. “The fieldwork was long hours of paddling thousands of [miles] up and down rivers looking for crocs to sample, moving great distances between sites and countries dealing with local governments for research permission and export permits, not to mention new languages, cultures, and diseases like malaria.”
Even though Shirley encountered malaria 16 times, he didn’t give up on his research.
“Sometimes the difficulties that face us in the region are enough to give one pause,” he said.
Shirley also said that splitting the specimens from each other while searching for discreet differences between them was “very tedious work.” The team had to do extra work due to the loss of the M. cataphractusholo specimen, which was originally used to mark differences between the two species as far back as World War II, according to National Geographic.
The new species classification will help organizations which protect endangered creatures to distinguish them and provide better protection. Shirley’s team is working with West African governments to introduce a breeding program and help local conservation activities aimed at supporting endangered species.
The newly discovered crocodile species and its relative M. cataphractus aren’t the only species in decline and approaching the brink of extinction. Scientists recently discovered that extinction rates are outpacing evolution, driven by human activities.