Scientists have discovered what may be the largest marine crocodile that ever lived, a monstrous predator as long as a bus that crunched up and ate sea turtles with blunt, bullet-shaped teeth.
The University of Alberta, PhD the student Tetsuto Miyashita and Frederico Fanti and seven scientists to report the largest crocodile ever known to swim the Earth’s seas.
The new species, named Machimosaurus rex, grew to be about 10 meters long and hunted in the shallow seas of what is now Tunisia around 130 million years ago, during the age of dinosaurs, report scientists in a new paper published in the journal Cretaceous Research.
Not only was the crocodile the largest of its kind, but it was also the last of its kind.
Machimosaurus Rex belonged to a lineage of sea-dwelling crocodiles, most of them no longer than three meters thought to have gone extinct about 20 million years earlier.
The researchers don’t know exactly how long Machimosaurus Rex was because so far they have only been able to collect its skull.
Miyashita received a Skype call from Fanti after the dig and was shown a photograph of the crocodile skull in the ground.
“There was a neck attached to it, and then the back, and the tail, and the limbs sticking out sideways. The whole crocodile was there,” says Miyashita.
Miyashita was invited to join the dig after the first team had only managed to collect the skull. Tatooine—where George Lucas filmed his Star Wars movies—is pinched by Libya to the east and Algeria to the west.
Like Lucas’s planet Tatooine in the films, it is a remote, sparsely populated desert province.
Since the Arab Spring in 2012, the region’s security has been unstable.
With a body length of about 35 feet, Machimosaurus rex was larger than any other known crocodiles known from oceans of the dinosaur age.
Machimosaurus had bullet-shaped teeth shaped with blunt tips and wrinkles, thought to have been used to crush carapaces of marine turtles.
“These teeth weren’t for cutting or piercing flesh,” says Miyashita, “they were built for crushing bones.”
The Fanti-Miyashita duo was set to return to southern Tunisia in early 2015 to retrieve the rest of the body from the ground, but political turmoil in the region derailed their plan. After being grounded in Italy for a week, Fanti and Miyashita decided to fly to Tunisia anyway.
It would have eaten anything in sight. Crocodiles today are opportunistic predators, and its co-discoverer Federico Fanti of the University of Bologna, Italy says Machimosaurus Rex would have been too.
There’s no question this animal had a terrific diet. Its teeth were designed for crushing hard material, says Fanti. Whatever ends up too close to the jaws is supper in one way or another. Considering such a powerful bite, he was not that picky.
The team has been combing through an area of Tunisia for seven years. Fanti was surprised when he came across several ancient skulls: it is much more usual to discover only small remnants of bones or teeth.
Although the remains were so clearly visible, nobody had previously looked for fossils in that part of Tunisia, says Fanti. What’s more, the new find could change our understanding of the transition between the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods.
“Basically, they are bigger or smaller,” he said of their evolution, adding that even bigger crocodiles lived on land, many of which also have gone extinct.
The largest freshwater crocodile, Sarcosuchus imperator, lived 110 million years ago and grew as long as 40 feet (12 meters).
It weighed up to 17,500 pounds, according to National Geographic.