Life-Size Cast of "SuperCroc" Debuts at Geographic HQ

Bijal P. Trivedi
National Geographic Today
November 16, 2001
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Two life-size casts of SuperCroc—the 112 million-year-old, 40-foot (12-meter), 8-ton (18,000-pound), dinosaur-eating crocodilian—were unveiled Friday at National Geographic Society's Explorers Hall in Washington, D.C., and at the National History Museum of Los Angeles County, California.

National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and University of Chicago paleontologist Paul Sereno unearthed the beast in the Sahara Desert last year. Details about his venture were published in October.

"National Geographic Channel presents SuperCroc," as the exhibit of the cast and real fossils from the Sahara is called, is touring various parts of the world as a prelude to "SuperCroc," a global television event premiering December 9, 2001, 8 to 10 p.m. ET/PT, on the National Geographic Channel.

SuperCroc, or Sarcosuchus imperator, could eat anything, said National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and University of Chicago paleontologist Paul Sereno, at the unveiling of the cast in Washington on Friday.

Its skull was six feet long (1.8 meters) and its mouth was filled with about 132 teeth.

"These blunt teeth don't really interact, they just crush. They grab, pull, crush and twist," said Sereno. It was eating fish but it was also adapted for pulling anything it could get from the riverbanks, like dinosaurs, added Sereno.

Sarcosuchus may have regularly dined on dinosaurs. With a "bite-force" of 18,000 pounds, or more than 8 tons, this beast had the power to snag dinosaurs from the shores, Sereno said.

French geologists first discovered isolated bones from Sarcosuchus in the Ténéré Desert in 1964, but no one had enough of the skull and skeleton to reconstruct the reptile's anatomy, lifestyle, and how they fit into the crocodile family tree.

Strewn about the desert floor and embedded in sandstone in what Sereno described as the richest dinosaur beds on the continent, were bones from many different specimens of Sarcosuchus: teenagers, babies, and adults. But there was no complete skeleton from one individual.

Reconstructing a life-size version of Sarcosuchus imperator from a heap of bones found in the desert in Niger took considerable detective work and some sweaty encounters with modern-day crocodiles in India and Costa Rica.

Sereno and his colleagues accumulated about 50 percent of the bones in the Sarcosuchus. The skull came from an adult about 50 to 60 years old. The bones from younger animals had to be enlarged to be consistent with the size of the skull.

The most glaring omissions were the limbs and the tail tip. These areas weren't protected by the armor plates and tended to make particularly tasty snacks, said Sereno. That's probably why they are often missing from the fossil skeletons.

The length of the body was estimated based on the size of the skull. Sereno and colleague Brady Barr, National Geographic's reptile expert, measured Indian crocodiles and giant Costa Rican crocs to understand the relationship between head size to work out the likely total length of SuperCroc.

The riverbed in which Sereno found the Sarcosuchus skull has also yielded six other new species of crocodiles.

At the unveiling of the Sarcosuchus cast, Sereno opened a small wooden box to reveal the tiny skull of the "duck crocodile" which was also about 110 million years old. This is one of the smallest crocodiles that lived at the time.

To see Paul Sereno and Brady Barr's journey to flesh out the anatomy and behavior of Sarcosuchus watch SuperCroc, premiering around the world December 9, 2001. In the United States the show will air 8 to 10 p.m. ET/PT on the National Geographic Channel.

"National Geographic Channel presents SuperCroc" will be on exhibit at Explorers Hall from November 16, 2001, through January 2, 2002. A similar exhibit will be on display November 16, 2001, through January 27, 2002, at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

The exhibit includes fossil remains of the croc, including the full skull and original teeth found in the Sahara; a flesh model of the croc's six-foot-long (1.8-meter) head; and footage from the new National Geographic Channel film SuperCroc, which chronicles the excavation and efforts to recreate the giant croc.

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