Most serious Jeopardy! players already know the Sahara Desert has not always been barren and dry. In fact, much of the Sahara was underwater some 130 million years ago, and fearsome creatures, including a 30-foot-long prehistoric crocodile, inhabited the tropical ocean waters that eventually shrank to become the Mediterranean Sea.
The researchers who discovered the fossil croc named the new species the Machimosaurus rex, and have published a paper about the monumental creature in the most recent edition of Cretaceous Research.
Giant prehistoric crocodile was top predator
A modeling of the skeleton found in present-day Tunisia suggests that the prehistoric crocodile would have weighed in at least 6,600 pounds and been close to 32 feet long. Just for reference, that is larger than a school bus. Of interest, the ancient giant crocodile appears to be very similar to modern crocodiles aside from its narrower snout, permitting it to swim rapidly in the ocean.
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The paleontologists are relatively certain that it would have been a top predator in the large tropical ocean that divided Africa and Europe more than 100 million years ago.
The researchers suggest that this site in central Tunisia was a lagoon that faced the ocean some 125 million years ago or so. The team of paleontologists also found the remains of fish and turtles that they still need to identify.
Of particular interest, this new fossil croc discovery in Tunisia contradicts currently prevalent theories regarding timelines for prehistoric life. The evolutionary line of prehistoric crocodiles that M. rex is a member of was believed to have gone extinct 150 million years ago at the end of the Jurassic Period, but this prime specimen of M. rex lived around 130 million years ago. More research will be required to tell if the ancient Tunisian lagoon was a protected environment where that species of giant crocs survived as a remnant or if the current theories are erroneous due to a limited sample size.
Statements from study author
“This is an incredibly big crocodile. It is twice as big as a present day marine crocodile,” University of Bologna’s Federico Fanti, a member of the team (that worked with support from the National Geographic Society Committee for Research and Exploration), commented in an interview.
“The skull itself is as big as I am,” Fanti noted. “Just the skull is more than five feet long. It’s a massive crocodile.”
“This one was a big surprise, not because we found fossils, but we found beautiful ones,” he continued, pointing out the giant croc skull took two days to unearth, and that the “rest of the body was just lying there.”
There is no question that the prehistoric crocodile was “absolutely capable” of hunting in the water and was likely an ambush predator or possibly a scavenger, Fanti explained. He also noted a comparison of M. rex to other crocodiles with large heads and short teeth implies that the M. rex had “a very incredibly powerful bite force” so it could crush its food, Sea turtles would almost certainly have been one preferred food source.