Bernissartia (Wikimedia Commons).


Bernissartia ("from Bernissart," after the region of Belgium where it was discovered); pronounced BURN-iss-ARE-tee-yah


Swamps and shorelines of western Europe

Historical Period:

Early Cretaceous (145-140 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

About two feet long and 5-10 pounds


Fish, shellfish and carrion

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Small size; long, pointed snout; two kinds of teeth in jaws

About Bernissartia

Except for its tiny size (only about two feet long from head to tail and no more than 10 pounds), Bernissartia looked pretty much like a modern crocodile, with its long tail, splayed limbs, elongated snout and powerful jaws. You might think a prehistoric crocodile this petite would have made it a point to stay away from larger reptiles, but Bernissartia appears to have shared the swamps of early Cretaceous western Europe with much bigger dinosaurs (which presumably left it alone in favor of less toothy prey). In fact, a handful of Bernissartia fossils have been discovered in close proximity to a specimen of Iguanodon, one possibility being that they were feasting on the carcass of this dead ornithopod before being drowned in a flash flood.

One odd feature of Bernissartia, crocodile-wise, was the two kinds of teeth embedded in its jaws: sharp incisors in front and flat molars in back. This is a clue that Bernissartia may have fed on shellfish (which needed to be ground to bits before swallowing) as well as fish, and, as stated above, may also have subsisted on the carcasses of already-dead sauropods and ornithopods. One likely interpretation of this behavior is that Bernissartia roamed up and down the beaches of its presumed island habitat (during the early Cretaceous period, much of western Europe was submerged under water), eating pretty much anything that happened to wash up on shore.