Ancient Croc Species Likely Ate Man

By Amir Khan on May 9, 2012 9:02 AM EDT

Newfound Croc Species Likely Ate Man
The illustration shows the comparative sizes of ancient/modern crocodiles and ancient/modern humans. (Photo: Chris Brochu)

Researchers discovered the fossilized remains the largest known crocodile species ever in Kenya, they announced on Monday. The ancient Nile crocodile ancestor measured 27 feet (8 meters) long and likely lived between 2 million and 4 million years ago, according to the study, published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Researchers also found remains of Australopithecus, an early human ancestor that lived around the same time period, near the crocodile, indicating that the two co-existed, according to the study.

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"It lived alongside our ancestors, and it probably ate them," Christopher Brochu, study author and associate professor of geoscience at the University of Iowa, told Bloomberg News. "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."

The crocodiles lived in freshwater, meaning humans would have encountered them during their daily lives, researchers said.

"Humans might have eaten food along a lakeside or riverbank, but more importantly, they would have needed water to drink," Brochu told Discovery News. "This would have brought them right to where the crocodiles might have been living."

Brochu named the species Crocodylus thorbjarnarsoni after famed crocodile expert and Brochu's colleague John Thorbjarnarson, who died of malaria several years ago.

"He was a giant in the field, so it only made sense to name a giant after him," Brochu said in a statement. "I certainly miss him, and I needed to honor him in some way. I couldn't not do it."

Researchers told Discovery News C. thorbjarnarsoni likely had a "lifestyle that was probably similar to that of their living counterparts -- semi-aquatic ambush predators that would stealthily approach prey. Anything in the shallow water or close to the waterline would have been in range."

The largest recorded Nile crocodile was 21 feet (6.5 meters), but the species typically grows to around 16 feet (5 meters), researchers said. The larger size coupled with differences in the skull and jaw of the newly discovered species likely means that the modern crocodile developed later than previously thought. It also means that modern crocodiles aren't the "living fossils" many people think.

"We really don't know where the Nile crocodile came from," Brochu said in a statement, "but it only appears after some of these prehistoric giants died out."

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