This croc wasn't new to science. Some of its conical teeth, vertebrae, and foot-long armor plates, or scutes, were first discovered by French paleontologist Albert-Félix de Lapparent. In 1966 his niece France de Broin and fellow paleontologist Philippe Taquet named the creature Sarcosuchus imperator, the "flesh crocodile emperor."
We called it SuperCroc. And we were hoping to answer some lingering questions about this little-described giant.
Expedition 2000, funded in part by the Society's Expeditions Council and its Committee for Research and Exploration, was my fourth to the Sahara, and it was no holiday in the sand. We had to transport trucks, tools, tents, five tons of plaster, 600 pounds of pasta, 4,000 gallons of water, and four months' worth of other supplies into the heart of the world's largest desert. Truck-engulfing sand, a trucker strike, and gas shortages cost precious time. But when, on August 30, we finally reached the first of our four camp locations, we struck it fossil rich right from the start.
"The backbone!" shouted David Blackburn, a student from the University of Chicago. Trenching around a large Sarcosuchus skull, he discovered a series of vertebrae snaking into sediments laid down by a river some 110 million years ago. Undeterred by the blistering heat, he and other members of my 16-person crew were closing in on beautifully preserved pieces of SuperCroc's skeleton.
"Gorgeous armor," mused paleontologist Hans Larsson, examining a stack of foot-long bony scutes that looked like roofing tiles. These would have provided an impermeable shield over SuperCroc’s neck, back, and tail. Throughout their evolution all crocs have sported this body armor. It's SuperCroc's skull that's unparalleled.
More than a hundred teeth jut from narrow jaws that must have been adept at snagging fish. And unlike any other croc, living or extinct, SuperCroc's skull gets wider toward the front end, which is armed with a deadly row of enlarged incisors. These robust bone-crushers suggest that Sarcosuchus could eat far meatier prey than fish.