"SuperCroc" Fossil Found in Sahara

D.L. Parsell
National Geographic News
October 25, 2001

>> 2009 UPDATE: Read more about BoarCroc, PancakeCroc, DuckCroc, RatCroc, and DogCroc: five strange, dinosaur-era crocodile cousins discovered in the Sahara.

Hey, Crocodile Dundee, try this on for size.

Scientists have unearthed the remains of an ancient crocodile that was as long as a city bus and as heavy as a small whale.

The giant creature, which lived 110 million years ago, during the Middle Cretaceous, grew as long as 40 feet (12 meters) and weighed as much as eight metric tons (17,500 pounds).

Its jaws alone were nearly six feet (1.8 meters) long and its more than 100 teeth so powerful that the colossal creature probably consumed small dinosaurs as well as fish, the researchers say.

Paleontologist Paul Sereno and his colleagues pieced together a portrait of the monster—which they've dubbed SuperCroc—based on fossils they've collected at Gadoufaoua in Niger, a remote site in the Sahara Desert where Tuareg nomads roam.

The fossils are from an extinct species that first came to light more than 30 years ago. French paleontologists reported several skulls and other parts of the creature and named it Sarcosuchus imperator, meaning "flesh crocodile emperor."

Much about the giant croc remained a mystery, however, until Sereno's team began excavating at Gadoufaoua in 1997. "People hadn't gone back with any expedition capacity since then, so not much else was collected," said team member Hans Larsson.

The 1997 dig had barely begun when the team discovered the fossilized jaws, each as long as some members of the team. The group had traveled to the site—one of the richest fossil beds in Africa—to search for dinosaurs. But it was immediately clear that the giant jawbones had not come from a dinosaur, Sereno said.

"We had never seen anything like it," he said. "The snout and teeth were designed for grabbing prey—fish, turtles, and dinosaurs that strayed too close."

Other massive crocodiles have been reported, but Sarcosuchus imperator is the most complete specimen found so far and among the largest crocodilians that ever lived.

During expeditions in 1997 and 2000, Sereno's team found skulls, vertebrae, limb bones, and foot-long (30-centimeter) bony armor plates called scutes. From this trove of bones, the scientists were able to assemble about half of the giant croc's skeleton, providing a good picture of Sarcosuchus.

"The new material gives us a good look at hyper-giant crocodiles," said Sereno, an Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society and a professor at the University of Chicago. "There's been rampant speculation about what they looked like and where they fit in the croc family tree."

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