National Geographic unveils 40-foot crocodile

Dinosaur-age creature was discovered in Niger during dig last year

November 23, 2001|By Cassio Furtado | Cassio Furtado,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - A replica of 40-foot crocodile longer than a bus, with bone-crushing teeth and what its discoverer calls an "ambush lifestyle," took up residence recently at the National Geographic Society's Explorers Hall.

Fortunately, the Sarcosuchus imperator - nicknamed SuperCroc - has been dead for 110 million years.

Its bones, recovered from a desert in central Niger in Africa by a team led by University of Chicago paleontologist Paul Sereno, are forbidding enough.

Sereno, an explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic, and Brady Barr, a reptile expert, supplemented the real bones with plaster ones to create the complete SuperCroc skeleton model that went on display at the society.

6-foot jaws

Sereno, Barr and their team were hunting dinosaur fossils in Niger when they found 6-foot jaws they knew they didn't belong to a dinosaur.

"We had never seen anything like it," Sereno told said.

"The snout and teeth were designed for grabbing prey - fish, turtles and dinosaurs that strayed too close," he said.

It had a substantial overbite, and its jaws have more than a hundred teeth, including a row of enlarged bone-crushing incisors that enabled the reptile, said Sereno, "to eat far meatier prey than fish."

The beast's eye sockets tilted upward, enabling it to remain underwater while scanning the river's edge. He estimates the SuperCroc weighed more than 17,000 pounds.

"It was living an ambush lifestyle," Sereno said. "Despite its enormous size, much of the time this animal was hiding 95 percent of its body under water."

Sereno's team dug up the skull, vertebrae, limb bones, and foot-long bony armor plates of the SuperCroc - more than enough to give a good picture of what it looked like. Some of the fossils are on display in the Washington exhibit.

One of five species

Researchers say that at least five species of crocodiles lived there 110 million years ago, when central Africa's broad rivers covered much of what is now Niger.

They believe Sarcosuchus was the monster among them. Early forms of crocodiles first appeared about 230 million years ago, during the late Triassic, and diverged into several different forms.

Other enormous crocodiles have been studied, but SuperCroc is the most complete specimen found so far. Sereno estimated that it took 50 to 60 years to reach maturity.

SuperCroc closes its Washington engagement Jan. 2.

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