10 Facts About Sarcosuchus, the World's Biggest Crocodile

There's a Lot to Know About This 40-Foot, Meat-Eating Powerhouse

The bones of <i>Sarcosuchus</i>, a model at the French National Museum of Natural History in Paris
The bones of Sarcosuchus, a model at the French National Museum of Natural History in Paris.

Patrick Janicek / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-2.0

Sarcosuchus was by far the biggest crocodile that ever lived, making modern crocs, caimans, and gators look like insignificant geckos by comparison. Below are 10 fascinating Sarcosuchus facts.

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Sarcosuchus Is Also Known as the SuperCroc

A view from tail to snapping jaws of a <i>Sarcosuchus</i> skeleton
A view from tail to snapping jaws of a Sarcosuchus skeleton.

ThoughtCo / Valerie Everett / CC BY-SA 2.0

The name Sarcosuchus is Greek for "flesh crocodile," but that apparently wasn't impressive enough for the producers at National Geographic. In 2001, this cable channel bestowed the title "SuperCroc" on its hour-long documentary about Sarcosuchus, a name that has since stuck in the popular imagination. (By the way, there are other "-crocs" in the prehistoric bestiary, none of which are quite as popular as SuperCroc: for example, have you ever heard of the BoarCroc or the DuckCroc?)

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Sarcosuchus Kept Growing Throughout Its Life Span

A digital image of a <i>Sarcosuchus</i> with a sheen of green moss on its reptilian skin
A digital image of a Sarcosuchus with a sheen of green moss on its reptilian skin.

Public Domain / Internet Archive Book Images

Unlike modern crocodiles, which attain their full adult size in about 10 years, Sarcosuchus seems to have kept growing and growing at a steady rate throughout its lifetime (paleontologists can determine this by examining bone cross-sections from various fossilized specimens). As a result, the largest, most superannuated SuperCrocs reached lengths of up to 40 feet from head to tail, compared to about 25 feet max for the biggest croc alive today, the saltwater crocodile.

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Sarcosuchus Adults May Have Weighed More Than 10 Tons

<i>Sarcosuchus</i> model on display at the French National Museum of Natural History
Sarcosuchus model on display at the French National Museum of Natural History.

Shadowgate from Novara, ITALY / Museum of Natural History / CC BY 2.0

What made Sarcosuchus truly impressive was its dinosaur-worthy weight: more than 10 tons for those 40-foot-long senior citizens described in the previous slide, and perhaps seven or eight tons for the average adult. If the SuperCroc had lived after the dinosaurs had gone extinct, rather than right alongside them during the middle Cretaceous period (about 100 million years ago), it would have counted as one of the largest land-dwelling animals on the face of the Earth.

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Sarcosuchus May Have Tangled With Spinosaurus

Head of <i>Sarcosuchus</i> on the left and skeleton of <i>Spinosaurus</i> on the right
Head of Sarcosuchus on the left and skeleton of Spinosaurus on the right.

ThoughtCo (left) and ThoughtCo / Valerie Everett / CC BY-SA 2.0 (right)

Although it's unlikely that Sarcosuchus deliberately hunted dinosaurs for lunch, there's no reason it had to tolerate other predators that competed with it for limited food resources. A full-grown SuperCroc would have been more than capable of breaking the neck of a large theropod, such as, say, the contemporary, fish-eating Spinosaurus, the largest meat-eating dinosaur that ever lived. While it's an undocumented encounter, it's an interesting one to think about: Spinosaurus vs. Sarcosuchus—Who Wins?

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The Eyes of Sarcosuchus Rolled Up and Down, not Left and Right

Skeletal head of <i>Sarcosuchus</i>
Skeletal head of Sarcosuchus.

ThoughtCo / Ghedoghedo, CC BY-SA 3.0

You can tell a lot about an animal's accustomed behavior by observing the shape, structure, and placement of its eyes. The eyes of Sarcosuchus didn't move left and right, like those of a cow or panther, but rather up and down, indicating that the SuperCroc spent much of its time submerged partway below the surface of freshwater rivers (like modern crocodiles), scanning the banks for interlopers and occasionally breaching the surface to snap at encroaching dinosaurs and drag them into the water.

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Sarcosuchus Lived Where the Sahara Desert Now Lies

A young Tuareg with a camel crossing the Western Sahara Desert
A young Tuareg with a camel crossing the Western Sahara Desert.

hadynyah / Getty Images

One hundred million years ago, northern Africa was a lush, tropical region crisscrossed by numerous rivers; it has only been relatively recently (geologically speaking) that this area dried out and became overspread by the Sahara, the largest desert in the world. Sarcosuchus was only one of a wide variety of plus-sized reptiles that took advantage of this region's natural abundance during the later Mesozoic Era, basking in its year-round heat and humidity; there were also plenty of dinosaurs to keep this croc company.

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The Snout of Sarcosuchus Ended in a Bulla

Various skeletal pieces of a Sarcosuchus at the Natural History Museum in Paris
Various skeletal pieces of a Sarcosuchus at the Natural History Museum in Paris.

LadyofHats / Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle, Paris, Public Domain

The bulbous depression, or "bulla," at the end of <i>Sarcosuchus</i>' long, narrow snout continues to be a mystery to paleontologists. This may have been a sexually selected characteristic (that is, males with larger bullas were more attractive to females during mating season, and thus managed to perpetuate the trait), an enhanced olfactory (smelling) organ, a blunt weapon deployed in intra-species combat, or even a sounding chamber that allowed Sarcosuchus individuals to communicate with each other over long distances. 

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Sarcosuchus Mostly Subsisted on Fish

Model of <i>Sarcosuchus</i> with a fish clamped in its sharp teeth
Model of Sarcosuchus with a fish clamped in its sharp teeth.

HombreDHojalata / Own work / CC BY-SA 3.0

You'd think a crocodile as big and heavy as Sarcosuchus would have feasted exclusively on the plus-sized dinosaurs of its habitat—say, half-ton hadrosaurs that wandered too close to the river for a drink. Judging by the length and shape of its snout, though, it's likely that the SuperCroc ate fish pretty much exclusively (gigantic theropods equipped with similar snouts, like Spinosaurus, also enjoyed piscivorous diets), only feasting on dinosaurs when the opportunity was too good to pass up.

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Sarcosuchus Was Technically a Pholidosaur

A <i>Pholidosaurus</i> floats below the surface of the water
A Pholidosaurus floats below the surface of the water.

 ThoughtCo / Nobu Tamura

Its catchy nickname aside, the SuperCroc wasn't a direct ancestor of modern crocodiles, but rather an obscure type of prehistoric reptile known as a pholidosaur. (By contrast, the almost-as-big Deinosuchus was a genuine member of the crocodile family, though it has technically been classified as an alligator.) The crocodile-like pholidosaurs went extinct millions of years ago for reasons that are still uncertain and haven't left any direct living descendants.

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Sarcosuchus Was Covered Head to Tail in Osteoderms

Some fossilized scutes (armored plates) of a <i>Sarcosuchus</i>
Some fossilized scutes (armored plates) of a Sarcosuchus.

Ghedoghedo / Own work / CC BY-SA 3.0

The osteoderms, or armored plates, of modern crocodiles aren't continuous—you can detect a break (if you dare to venture close enough) between their necks and the rest of their bodies. Not so with Sarcosuchus, the entire body was covered with these plates, except for the end of its tail and the front of its head. Tellingly, this arrangement is similar to that of another crocodile-like pholidosaur of the middle Cretaceous period, Araripesuchus, and may have had a deleterious effect on Sarcosuchus' overall flexibility.