Believe it or not, but 100 million years ago the area of the present-day scorching hot Sahara Desert was a lush swamp home not just to dinosaurs, but also to several kinds of prehistoric crocodilians. But that’s not all. These diverse ancient crocodiles came in all shapes and sizes. Some of them were galloping crocodiles, able to chase after prey on land, while others were so big and powerful that they were effective dinosaur hunters.
Paleontologist Paul Sereno in action. (Oregon State University / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
During excavations beginning in the 1990s, the famed paleontologist and dinosaur hunter, Paul Sereno, came across a staggering find when he and his team uncovered the fossilized skeleton of a giant prehistoric crocodile in the African Sahara known as a Sarcosuchus imperator or SuperCroc. While fragments of this majestic monster had already been discovered in 1966, Sereno unearthed several partial skeletons dating back 110 million years in Niger. With a head as big as Sereno was tall, the team estimated that this SuperCroc had measured about 40 ft long (12.19 m).
Fossilized remains of the Sarcosuchus imperator or SuperCroc. (patrick janicek / CC BY 2.0 )
Sereno kept returning to the Sahara and over the years discovered an entire world of lost crocodiles, many of which reminded him of other modern-day animals. There was the DogCroc ( Araripesuchus wegeneri ) who looked and lived like a dog, with tall legs and a sensitive nose. The three-foot-long (0.91 m) terrestrial DuckCroc ( Anatosuchus) was a crocodile physically evocative of a duck-billed platypus. Meanwhile the RatCroc ( Araripesuchus rattoides ) was just 2 feet long (0.6 m), land based and had front teeth designed for digging up insects.
The PancakeCroc ( Laganosuchus) was a conundrum, but in the end the team decided that its giant flat jaw was used much like a Venus flytrap, with the creature lying immobile and open-mouthed in the water for hours or days waiting for its prey. The BoarCroc ( Kaprosuchus) in the meantime looked like a wild boar. In a way reminiscent to the Australian freshie crocodile, the BoarCroc had the ability to move in water and gallop at high speeds on land, giving it a clear advantage over its prey before it clamped down its enormous teeth.
Skull of the prehistoric crocodile known as the Kaprosuchus saharicus or BoarCroc. (Carol Abraczinskas / CC BY 3.0 )
Excited by their ground-breaking finds, Sereno set out to recreate this vanished world and bring these prehistoric crocodiles to life using the power of cutting-edge technology. Armed with the fossil fragments encountered in North Africa, his team used CT-scans, special effects and forensic artists, to create flesh and digital reconstructions of this previously unknown family of prehistoric crocodiles.
Sereno even visited the zoologist and crocodile specialist, Dr. Adam Britton, in Australia, to really get a sense of how his newly-discovered prehistoric crocodiles would have moved and functioned in the past. The results were presented with stunning graphics and fascinating detail in the National Geographic documentary When Crocs Ate Dinosaurs .
Top image: Digital reconstruction of a Acrocanthosaurus dinosaur and a prehistoric Sarcosuchus crocodile or SuperCroc. Source: Michael Rosskothen / Adobe Stock
By Cecilia Bogaard