Sarcosuchus Imperator, the dinosaur killer:
The mid Cretaceous was the heyday of the dinosaurs, when monsters ruled the earth. But not every deadly creature was a dinosaur. Sub-Saharan Africa knew an ancient crocodilian we now call Sarcosuchus imperator, the largest crocodile yet discovered.
Sarcosuchus imperator – the name means “flesh crocodile emperor” – is first known from a few fossilized teeth and armor plates uncovered by paleontologist Alfred Felix de Lapparent during expeditions to the Sahara in the late 1940’s and 50’s. De Lapparent named his find the Aoulef crocodile. He knew he had found a giant, but the fossils were too incomplete to give a definitive picture of the creature, and this is where the matter lay until 2000 when Paul Sereno’s Niger expedition turned up an almost complete specimen of this awesome creature.
The fossils that Sereno’s expedition uncovered were from a specimen approximately 40 feet long, 17,500 pounds in weight and with an enormous five and a half foot skull. The size and mass led to the beasts’ common nickname “Super croc”. More recent discoveries of fossilized skull fragments and teeth indicate a maximum length of nearly 60 feet for this titanic reptile, but even at a mere 40 feet, Super croc has earned his name.
The Sahara was no desert 112 million years ago but a warm, moist series of verdant plains, dotted with lakes and crisscrossed by vast, deep, sluggish rivers. It is in this fresh water environment that Sarcosuchus made its home. There were large flowering trees coming into their own for the first time, gigantic cycads and horsetails and ferns of all description. This provided splendid fodder for the plant eating dinosaurs, and these gigantic herbivores in turn provided nourishment for the large predators like Spinosaurus and Sarcosuchus.
Super croc had a long but slender snout, filled with 132 strong, conical teeth. The tip of the snout sported what is called a bulla; a bulbous structure that scientists have speculated was a scent enhancing organ, or perhaps a sound chamber to help produce a louder roar, grunt or cough.
The basic skull design is much like that of a piscivore and except for the fact that the top and bottom teeth overlap, and the presence of the mysterious bulla is very much like that of the modern gharial or gavial and these crocs are strict fish eaters. There were, in super crocs environment a number of very large fish species, some exceeding 6 feet in length so perhaps Sarcosuchus could have survived on fish alone.
On the other hand, the position of the eyes indicates a riverbank ambush strategy was possible, with the crocodile behaving like a floating log until the foolish prey is lulled into overconfidence. The overlapping teeth are also indicative of at least an opportunistically active carnivore feeding pattern.
Was Sarcosuchus a dinosaur killer? The best current answer is; probably yes. Sarcosuchus shared space and time with medium to large sauropods, many iguanodons, and the heavyweight predator Spinosaurus. Surely a 40 foot super croc operating from ambush could successfully take down a young or adolescent iguanodon or sauropod, and even a young Spinosaurus would not have posed too many problems.
Demise and survivors:
Although Sarcosuchus closely resembles several species of modern crocodile it is direct ancestor to none of them. Rather, today’s crocodiles and super croc enjoy a common, more ancient ancestor. Sarcosuchus did not survive the mid Cretaceous, succumbing to a rapidly changing climate that dried up the vast network of waterways it knew as home.