A team led by University of Chicago professor Paul Sereno has unearthed the six-foot long jaws and skull of the largest crocodile to walk the earth. The crocodile, known to exist but without known dimensions, lived about 110 million years ago in what is now the Tenere Desert in central Niger. Sereno used these fossils to determine that an individual crocodile could reach a length of up to 40 feet and weigh as much as 10 tons.
"It was absolutely enormous," Sereno said according to the Washington Post. "There's nothing that would be able to handle that animal. It's like a torpedo of muscle five feet in diameter. The skull of the world's largest living crocodile looks like an hor d'oeuvre by comparison."
The crocodile, officially named Sarcosuchus imperator but nicknamed "SuperCroc," would have been about 10 times the size of a modern crocodile. It had a pronounced overbite and more than 100 teeth, including enlarged incisors that suggest Sarcosuchus brought down larger prey than just fish.
The structure of the skull, with the eye sockets tilted upward, allowed Sarcosuchus to conceal much of its bulk while swimming and watching the riverbank. "It was living an ambush lifestyle," Sereno said in a University of Chicago press release. "Despite its enormous size, much of the time the animal was hiding 95 percent of its body under water."
The first evidence of Sarcosuchus was found by French paleontologists in the mid-1960s, but without the skull their estimates concerning the dimensions of the crocodile were vague.
"No one had enough of the skull and skeleton to really nail any of the true croc giants down until now," Sereno said in the press release.
The finds of this expedition, Sereno's fourth to the Sahara, are featured in the journal Science, as part of the Science Express Web site. Additional finds by the team include the four-inch skull of a new species of dwarf crocodile. The region, which in the Cretaceous period was a jungle ecosystem with rivers 200 to 300 feet wide, has produced many fossils and evidence of five species of crocodiles.
Sereno partnered with National Geographic reptile expert Brady Barr to study living crocodilians, and the pair has traveled around the world. Their work will be the subject of the television special "SuperCroc" on the National Geographic Channel on December 9.
The new fossil evidence will also result in life- size recreations of Sarcosuchus, to be unveiled at the National Geographic Society's Explorer's Hall in Washington, D.C., and in the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles, on November 16.
The exhibit will tour the United States after its Los Angeles closing in late January.
Sereno has produced a number of major finds in the field of paleontology. He is credited with unearthing the oldest dinosaur ever found, the first dinosaur skulls and skeletons found from the Cretaceous period in Africa, and both a new predator and new herbivore from Niger. Sereno has been a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence since 2000.