By Rossella Lorenzi
The largest known crocodile, a creature big enough to swallow a human whole, has emerged from fossils on display at The National Museum of Kenya in Nairobi.
Called Crocodylus thorbjarnarsoni, the new species thrived from 2 to 4 million years ago in East Africa, according to Christopher Brochu, associate professor of geoscience at the University of Iowa.
Resembling a modern Nile crocodile, but much more massive (27 feet in length) and with a different skull and jaw formation, the aquatic reptile had a pair of horn-like protuberances behind its eyes and a “powerful tail.”
The fossil had been long sitting in the museum without anyone realizing it was a new species.
“The Nairobi collection is beautiful and contains many fossils that have been incompletely studied. So many discoveries could yet be made,” the researcher said.
According to Brochu, who has detailed his finding in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, the creature “lived alongside our ancestors, and it probably ate them.”
Indeed, fossils of this giant crocodile were found in areas of Kenya where remains of Australopithecus (an extinct genus of hominids) were also discovered.
Likely, there would have been ample opportunity for humans to encounter crocs: early man, along with other animals, would have had to seek water at rivers and lakes where crocodiles lie in wait.
Although the fossils contain no evidence of human/reptile encounters, crocodiles generally eat whatever they can swallow, and humans of that time period would have stood no more than four feet tall.
“We don’t actually have fossil human remains with croc bites, but the crocs were bigger than today’s crocodiles, and we were smaller, so there probably wasn’t much biting involved,” Brochu said.
He added that Crocodylus thorbjarnarsoni is not directly related to the present-day Nile crocodile. This suggests that the Nile crocodile is a fairly young species and not an ancient “living fossil” as many believe.
“We really don’t know where the Nile crocodile came from, but it only appears after some of these prehistoric giants died out,” Brochu said.