Entirely New Species of Crocodile Has Been Discovered—And It's Got Soft Skin

File photo: A West African slender-snouted crocodile is pictured. Or is it? Getty Images

Scientists have found an entirely new species of crocodile in Central Africa. Previously bundled in with a West African counterpart, researchers finally described the distinct species Wednesday in the journal ZooTaxa.

Recognizing the separate croc species has effectively slashed the population of its West African cousin. With only around 500 animals remaining, the Mecistops cataphractus population is critically endangered, National Geographic reported.

The new species—Mecistops leptorhynchus, or the Central African slender-snouted crocodile—has smaller, softer scales than the West African croc, and is missing a bony nub found on their skulls. The different crocs have been lumped under the same name since 1835, but scientists have been unhappy with this designation for years, study author Matt Shirley told Newsweek.

Found from Cameroon to Tanzania, scientists think the new species likely diverged some eight million years ago, when intense volcanic activity created a boundary of mountains in and around today's Cameroon. This split up the creatures, Shirley told National Geographic.

Researchers conducted extensive field work and probed large numbers of museum samples to pin down the new species. "Basically this involved me running around 14 different African countries from 2006-2012, and I have not left the field since," Shirley 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."

Although he's contracted malaria some 16 times, he said it never made him consider giving up. "Sometimes the difficulties that face us in the region are enough to give one pause," he said, but he's inspired to keep going by future generations of African conservationists and scientists.

Poring over museum specimens in the search for really subtle differences was "very tedious work" Shirley said. The team's efforts were compounded by the loss of the M. cataphractus holotype—the specimen used to originally identify the species—back in World War II, National Geographic stated.

The new species designation will help conservationists better protect these endangered creatures, Shirley told Newsweek. His team are working West African governments on a breeding and reintroduction programme, as well as helping to train local conservationists.

M. cataphractus isn't the only species on the brink of extinction. Scientists recently calculated the extinction of mammals—largely driven by human destruction of habitats, among other factors—is outpacing evolution.

"This kind of pattern isn't common in the extinctions we know of from the fossil record, so we are now entering uncharted territory," study author Matt Davis of Denmark's Aarhus University previously told Newsweek.

Many bird species also face declining populations. Eight bird species have been confirmed as extinct or almost extinct over the last decade, non-profit BirdLife International recently reported. "People think of extinctions and think of the dodo but our analysis shows that extinctions are continuing and accelerating today," the organization's chief scientist Stuart Butchart said in a statement at the time.

The remote Gough Island in the South Atlantic—home to some eight million birds—has seen populations plummet in recent years, British bird charity Royal Society for the Protection of Birds reported earlier this week. Oversized mice have been eating eggs and chicks, putting rare species at risk of extinction.

This article has been updated to include comment from Matt Shirley.