The Sahara desert, with its endless stretches of sand and searing heat, may not be the first place you’d expect to find a prehistoric sea monster. But that’s exactly where National Geographic grantee Federico Fanti and his team of paleontologists made an astonishing discovery: the remains of a massive marine crocodile named Machimosaurus rex.
With estimated lengths of up to 30 feet (9.14 meters) and razor-sharp teeth, M. rex was a true apex predator of the Late Jurassic seas. Fanti and his colleagues pieced together the crocodile’s fossilized bones, unlocking clues about its anatomy, behavior, and evolutionary history. This groundbreaking research sheds new light on the ancient ecosystems of North Africa and the fascinating creatures that roamed them millions of years ago.
National Geographic grantee Federico Fanti and his research team have unearthed a sea-dwelling crocodylomorph (a teleosaurid) skeleton in southern Tunisia, in the Sahara desert: Machimosaurus rex. It is the world’s largest marine crocodyliform and was previously unknown to science. Its length is estimated at more than 30 feet (9.14 meters) [Notte: later, this size was downgraded]. The giant probably weighed at least three tons.
The fossil dates back 130 million years ago. The head of the crocodile alone is over 5 feet long. The discovery proves that this animal lived 25 million years past the hypothesized global extinction at the end of the Jurassic period.
Related: Top 6 largest prehistoric crocodiles
Machimosaurus rex: a giant Cretaceous crocodile
The teleosaurids were marine crocodyliforms similar to the modern gharial (Gavialis gangeticus, the fish-eating crocodile) that lived from the Early Jurassic to the Early Cretaceous. They had long snouts, which allowed them to swim in the ocean, indicative of piscivory (fish-eating).
So, other than its massive size, the Machimosaurus rex would have looked much like a
Federico Fanti, the head of the research team, says: “Machimosaurus rex had stocky, relatively short and rounded teeth and a massive skull capable of a remarkable bite force.” It was preying mainly on fish, but capable of hunting a variety of prey, including large marine turtles.
Update: a new estimate of Machimosaurus rex’s size
More recent estimates put Machimosaurus rex along with Machimosaurus hugii (another Machimosaurus species known from the Kimmeridgian of Portugal, Spain, Tunisia, and Switzerland) at about 6.9-7.2 meters (22.6-23.6 feet) long (skull length 155 cm or 61 inches).
Still larger than all modern crocodiles, but not as large as previously thought.
Quote from a recent study on the Palaeontologia Electronica website:
“Known to have evolved a wide range of body lengths (2-5 meters based on complete skeletons), there is currently no way of reliably estimating the size of incomplete specimens. This is surprising, as some teleosaurids have been considered very large (9-10 meters in total length), thus making Teleosauridae the largest-bodied clade during the first 100 million years of crocodylomorph evolution.”
“Our examination and regression analyses of the best-preserved teleosaurid skeletons demonstrate that: they were smaller than previously thought, with no known specimen exceeding 7.2 meters in length; and that they had proportionally large skulls, and proportionally short femora when compared to body length. Therefore, while many teleosaurid species evolved a cranial length of ≥1 meter, these taxa would not necessarily have been larger than species living today. We advise caution when estimating body length for extinct taxa, especially for those outsides of the crown group.”
- Original source: “The largest thalattosuchian (Crocodylomorpha) supports teleosaurid survival across the Jurassic-Cretaceous boundary” on sciencedirect.com
- Teleosauridae on Wikipedia
- Gharial on Wikipedia
- Machimosaurus on Wikipedia
- Teleosaurid size estimation on the Palaeontologia Electronica website
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