|Sarcosuchus imperator, better known as SuperCroc, was a forty-foot long, ten-ton crocodile that lived 110 million years ago in what is now the Sahara Desert. Paleontologist Paul Sereno and his seventeen crew members set out to look for the remains of this prehistoric beast. Sereno worked with numerous other scientists and artists to bring this creature back to life.|
Paul Sereno started his expedition in the year 2000. He traveled to Gadoufa, in the country of Niger in Africa. "It was no holiday in the sand," said Sereno. "We had to transport trucks, tools, tents, five tons worth of plaster, 600 pounds of pasta, 4000 gallons of water and four months worth of supplies into the heart of the world's largest desert." He and his crew would be looking for the remains of a giant crocodile which lived in a time when the Sahara was not sand, but a steaming swamp.
Sereno was not the first to discover this giant crocodile. He follows French paleontologist, Albert-Felix de Lapparent, and later his niece, France de Broin, with Philippe Taquet. They found some of its teeth, vertebrae and scutes - the foot-long bony plates in the crocodile's back. Philippe Taquet named the croc Sarcosuchus imperator, which means ''flesh crocodile emperor.
While they were in the desert, Sereno and his crew found the skeletons and skulls of at least five other species of crocodiles, but their most amazing discovery was a complete six-foot skull of Sarcosuch us. They began to call the beast SuperCroc. Even though they found bones of other Sarcosuchus bodies, they could find no skeleton large enough to fit this skull.
After they found the fossil, they had to dig it up. This wasn't easy. At first they used chisels and shovels, then moved on to tooth brushes and paint brushes. This took several months. Then they had to cover skull with plaster so that it wouldn't crumble and fall apart along the way. Finally, they had to haul it out of the ground and onto the trucks that would carry it out of the desert. Once SuperCroc was taken to the airport in jeeps, it was shipped off to the United States.
Sereno and his team took a plane and arrived before the fossils to prepare the laboratory. Paul decided that the first thing they should detemiine was the length of SuperCroc. He also wanted to find out the possible habits of such a large animal. He wanted to know what it ate, the temperature of its body, the pace at which it moved and the way it breathed. He wanted to know everything about this creature. He was also curious about why crocodilians have survived for so many millions of years when dinosaurs have gone extinct.
Sereno thought that many of SuperCroc's habits would be similar to the ones of today's crocodiles. With help from the people from National Geographic, Paul contacted herpetologist Brady Barr. Barr took Sereno around the world, showing him many of the twenty-three crocodile and alligator species up close. Sereno took measurements of body weight and length, comparing total length to length of head. This allowed him to estimate that the size of the skeleton that would fit SuperCroc' s skull would be about thirty feet long.
Paul Sereno also had a chance to observe the animals' habits in the wild. He learned some of the differences between a crocodile and an alligator. One of these is that the fourth tooth on each side of the lower jaw of a croc shows, and an alligator's does not. He got to see the way they took care of their young, the way they caught and ate their food and much more. He especially focused on a rare species called gharials because, for an unknown reason, male gharials have a bulbous snout, and SuperCroc' s skull had one also, though proportionally even larger.
Brady Barr and Paul Sereno think crocodilians have survived so long for several reasons. They have many ways of getting around. They can drag themselves along the ground, walk or run in an upright position, or silently swim through the swamp. Crocs take very good care of their young, protecting them from predators. They can hold their breath under water for a long time, making it easier to hide from danger or sneak up on prey.
Now Paul Sereno was ready to bring SuperCroc "back to life." For this, he needed the complete skeleton. He contacted Stephen Godfrey, curator of paleontology at the Calvert Marine Museum in southern Maryland. "I carved the skeleton for the body of SuperCroc," he told me. Using smaller SuperCroc bones as models, Godfrey carved the huge bones out of foam, making the necessary adjustments for size and reproducing "mirror images" of bones from one side of the animal to get the right shape for a bone from the other side. These foam bones were used to make plaster casts of a complete skeleton. When the skeleton was complete and attached to a cast of the head, SuperCroc was forty feet long. No one working on the project had ever seen anything like it.
I heard Brady Barr speak and saw the complete skeleton. It was just as I had imagined it, large and ferocious. I felt like it was going to reach out and grab me. It was very impressive to think that a group of people could make this, starting out with what used to be, to most people, just a pile of bones. It is fascinating to think that long ago, in the Cretaceous period, 110 million years ago, this beast was alive!
Barr, Brady, "The Odd Couple: The Gator Doc and the Dino Hunter," lecture at the National Geographic Society, Washington, D. C., December 3, 2001.
Godfrey, Stephen, personal communication, Calvert Marine Museum, November 10, 2001.
Lyon, Gabriel and Paul Sereno, www.supercroc.org, November 22-23, 2001.
Pope, Clifford, "Crocodile," The World Book Encyclopedia. 1984 edition, IV, pp. 916 - 914.
Sereno, Paul, "Super Croc," National Geographic, December, 2001, pp. 84-89.