Fruit Flies Are Cannibals

Aka/Creative Commons

Interesting discovery about the common fruit fly, one of the most widely studied animals in the world, and one of its cousins. It seems there's always something new to see, even right under our noses. 

Young Flies Cannibalize The Plump - Science News

"In a feeding test, more than a third of the younger larvae survived by eating nothing but the older ones.

“I have never read or heard about this, and I was absolutely stunned that nobody has ever noticed this before,” said Thomas Flatt of the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna."

Thanks to Erin for the news tip. 

Giant Sturgeon Caught

Monster white sturgeon weighing 1,100 pounds caught in Canada

"A monster white sturgeon weighing an estimated 1,100 pounds and measuring 12 feet, 4 inches was caught and released on the Fraser River.

This sturgeon is believed to be the biggest freshwater fish ever caught on rod and reel in North America...and possibly the oldest."

Related Post: Strange Creature from the Sea

Video of Killer Whale Roughing Up Trainer

Parties not involved in the incident

Video shows SeaWorld trainer's underwater struggle with orca | Reuters

"A newly released video shows a killer whale clamping down on a SeaWorld trainer's foot in 2006 and dragging him underwater, as he tries in vain to get back to the surface for air before the mammal finally sets him loose."

Thanks to Croconut for the news tip. 

Related Post: Bimbo the Pilot Whale

Animal Attack Movies: Eyes Without a Face

Eyes Without a Face (Georges Franju, 1960)

A horror movie about face transplants. It sounds pretty cheesy, but in fact it’s an understated, underplayed, beautifully photographed film. The genius is in the details: cars waiting at a train crossing, the sky gray, the pavement wet. The sound, unexplained for the moment, of dogs wailing when a man opens his garage door. The death of one of the malefactors, stabbed with a scalpel in the neck, between the strands of her pearl choker, which has been mentioned before because it hides her surgical scar. "Why?" she says as she sits down in the corner to die. 

The dialog is full of authentic medical touches that lend credibility. In fact the film never seems incredible for a moment. What makes this truly impressive is that it precedes the first genuine face transplants by 45 years. Real-life recipients include people mauled by a bear, a chimpanzee, and, in the very first successful transplant, a dog—-which makes the movie’s combination of dog attack with face transplant weirdly topical. 

Electric Catfish, Part 2: Edison

James's Bengal cat, Aslan

by guest writer James Smith
My second electric catfish, Edison, was doubtless purchased as part of an act of subconscious hostility towards one of my other pets. At least, that’s how it seemed later.

I had cut back on my fish-keeping—partly to have more room to devote to my major interest, reptiles and amphibians—although I did maintain a 30-gallon marine tank (the store where I worked, and still work, had just begun carrying saltwater fish and I wanted to be competent.) Marine fish are fascinating, beautiful and can, with proper selection and care, be hardy animals—if expensive. The hobby has come a long, long way from the old days. However, my marine endeavors were curtailed thanks to a very bored and highly predatory animal that shared my house—a domestic cat, specifically a Bengal named Aslan.

Bengals are gorgeous animals, deriving from a cross between a regular domestic cat and an Asian wildcat called the leopard cat (no relation to the leopard, apart from both being cats—leopard cats are around the size of a big domestic.) The more the wildcat blood is diluted, the smaller and more manageable the cat, as a rule: Aslan weighs about thirteen pounds, no bigger than a normal cat and smaller than my overweight female Maine Coon cross. Bengals do have a down side: they are very energetic and destructive when mood suits them; they have a distinct and very unpleasant yowl, best described as the sound a peacock might make while trying to impersonate an echolocating whale; and they have an incredible prey drive.

Aslan would spend hours leering in through the tank at my saltwater fish, and one day I arrived home to the inevitable: the cat, in my absence, had jumped up on the tank, and pawed open the hood, probably out of simple curiosity—he does the same thing with cabinet doors that don’t have a real latch. The fish, conditioned to rise when they sensed a tap up there signaling food, had come to the surface—where they were easy prey for the Bengal.

I swore off fish entirely for a while after that, but eventually I broke down and set up a 20-gallon long-style tank, and while musing about what to put in it, ran across a young electric catfish in a specialty aquarium store, again about six inches long. Given the sedentary habits and slow growth of the fish, I decided he would be fine in the tank I had for some time to come, and purchased him. As I say, I’m sure a psychologist would have a field day with the whys and wherefores here—they’d probably argue I had to know what was coming. All I can say is, I never consciously thought about the inevitable meeting until it happened.

This catfish, christened Edison, was a bit more outgoing than Galvani, perhaps due to being the only fish in his tank, and was out prowling about at all hours (I did not keep a light on in the tank, given the nocturnal behavior of its occupant.) I did give him live feeder fish from time to time, and he did appear to use his current to kill or stun them—the problem in ascertaining this was that as any aquarist knows, dumping a fish straight into a different tank can kill it from shock. So whether it was “death from shock” or “death from shocking” was open to question. When I gave him a baby crayfish about the size of a bee, however, Edison unmistakably made use of his current to subdue the crustacean.

Edison had initially simply tried to grab the crayfish in his jaws, but after receiving a pinch to the nose for his efforts, he retreated just beyond claw-range and seemed to almost be taking stock of the situation. The crayfish spun and pivoted wildly for several seconds while Edison hung back, and I could not help feeling a little sorry for it: it was clearly trying to keep its claws facing danger at all times, and in its efforts to deflect any fish that might be creeping up from behind, actually wound up doing the precise opposite every so often.

As with Galvani’s defensive strike, there was nothing to indicate that Edison had just released his weapon—no equivalent to a rattler’s S-coil or the dramatic handstand display of a skunk—except for the crayfish’s reaction: it flipped on its back, convulsed once, and lay still. Edison swam over, and, apparently satisfied of its death after cautious probing with his whiskers, set about ripping the crayfish into manageable chunks, shaking and worrying at it. It was like watching a bottom-dwelling shark—a nurse shark, say—in miniature, at work on a lobster.

In the course of tank maintenance, Edison managed to zap me a couple of times, something Galvani had never done—of course, Galvani had more room to maneuver out of the way in the 75. I’m uncertain just how high he had the juice turned up, because while it was startling and certainly unpleasant—rather like a very bad doorknob shock from discharging static electricity—it was less painful than assorted stings and bites I’ve suffered at various times over my checkered career. Granted, he was a small fish. But I have an idea things could have been much worse had he felt truly threatened, because one day, the epic confrontation of Cat vs. Catfish finally occurred.

Aslan, who had been on model behavior for over a month, finally succumbed to his baser urges and decided to send Edison the same way as he had the saltwater fish. I was sitting in my easy chair, multi-tasking—watching a movie, reading and having a snack—when I heard the telltale thump of the cat landing atop the tank and the sound of him pawing at the lid, then the splash of his paw in the water. I was getting up to shoo the cat off the tank when Edison saved me the trouble. Aslan let out an unholy screech and shot into the air with all four feet. He came down bristling, arching and spitting like a witch’s Halloween cat, snarling and shaking his head as he bounded out of the room. From that time on, Aslan studiously avoided Edison’s tank, to the point of not even resting on top of it as he frequently did—and still does—with some of my reptile cages.

Edison died unexpectedly about two years ago—I was home one night when I heard the splash of a jumping fish, and turned to see him flapping and gasping on the floor. Scooping him up with a piece of cardboard and dumping him back into the tank, I watched as he settled to the bottom. I had seen fish survive jumping from tanks before and assumed he would recover. Unfortunately, he must have fallen in just the right way to damage something internally, and within a day or two, he was dead. Since the electric charge of a dead fish can still fire by reflex until decay causes the organ to break down, I netted him out somewhat gingerly.  After placing him in a small wooden box, I took him down to the garden—where most of the family’s pets have ended up after shuffling off this mortal coil—and interred him next to the horseradish. Somehow such a remarkable fish deserved more than “burial at sea” or simply being tossed over the neighbors’ bank for the crows or resident fox to clean up.

Edison’s tank is now inhabited by a Ruthven’s kingsnake, and I currently have no fish. But it’s only a matter of time and circumstance before I set up another tank—and I have more than half an idea that if I only find space and time for one aquarium, with one fish in it, that fish will be an electric catfish.

Electric Catfish, Part 1: Galvani

Stan Shebs/Creative Commons

by guest writer James Smith

My taste in pets has been characterized by various friends and family members as being “exotic,” “eclectic” and “just plain weird,” and I must admit that there may be something to their claims. Perhaps no animal better exemplifies the point than one of my favorite fish, an unprepossessing species from western and central Africa. Sluggish and dull-colored, perhaps best imagined as a finned sausage with two tiny, though functional, eyes and six whiskers at one end, it does not strike one at first glance as an exciting or dynamic aquarium inhabitant. In fact, one might be forgiven for wondering if it is even alive when glimpsed by day, resting on the bottom beneath a cave or driftwood.

The fish in question is the electric catfish—technically, there are two genera of electric cats, one made up of large species reaching nearly three feet in length and the other one of dwarf species under a foot long, totaling some twenty-odd varieties. Only a couple really appear in the aquarium trade with any regularity. As the name implies, these fish can generate a powerful electric charge by means of an organ made up of modified muscle cells, spanning the length of the body. A fairish number of fish possess some form of electrical organ, but in most of these fish, the organ is “weakly electrical”—that is, it is only useful for orientation, communicating with others of the same species, and detection of prey: given the small eyes, nocturnal habits and murky habitat of most electric fish, it is as vital to their existence as are their gills or fins. However, the electric cats—like a handful of other species, most notably the electric eel—is a “strongly electrical” species: that is, it produces a fairly powerful current—a modest-sized 20-incher can unleash up to 350 volts, though thankfully at a relatively low amperage—which can be used to stun or kill prey, or conversely, in the fish’s own defense against an attacker.

Electric catfish in the wild have been recorded at lengths approaching four feet and a whopping 44 pounds, although in aquaria this size is rarely attained and 20 inches is more likely the upper limit. Growth is not very rapid, or at least, does not seem to occur at anything like the headlong rate of, say, some of the larger cichlids. This suggests that these animals enjoy a long lifespan, even by the standards of large fish—and plenty of the bigger aquarium fish will comfortably outlive a large dog under ideal conditions.

My first electric cat, Galvani, was the mild-mannered but tough guy in a tank full of decidedly antisocial finned hoodlums. At the time I was running a 75-gallon tank where I would toss any fish that became too obnoxious and nasty for my 38 and 55-gallon jobs. I did notice that every so often, perfectly healthy and aggressive fish would go, literally overnight, into a sudden decline spanning the course of a few days, swimming erratically, being unable to stabilize in the water, and eventually dying, but I could not find anything to suggest disease or parasites. It was not until I observed Galvani’s encounter with a clown knifefish named Rajah—a large, predatory Asian species, which like the electric cat, can attain lengths of over three feet in nature, but averages about half that in aquaria—that I began to realize what had been happening.

Galvani was only about six inches long, while Rajah was easily twice that. While not big enough to swallow such a large meal, Rajah would attack and beat up fish far too big to eat, and he ruled the tank. Even my nastiest cichlids—red devils—feared him. So far, Rajah had left the catfish alone, but this particular evening, he spotted Galvani leaving his cave to munch up a juicy nightcrawler I had dropped on the bottom, and took action, arrowing towards the catfish with open jaws. There was, of course, no blinding flash, no crackling sound, but Galvani clearly unleashed his charge as Rajah was closing with millimeters to spare. The big knifefish stiffened and nosedived into a cluster of fake plants, gills pumping furiously. Galvani turned and wriggled back into his cave, dragging the earthworm, which he had not dropped during the whole episode. After some time, Rajah hauled himself groggily up into the water column, and more or less returned to normal by morning. He did, however, give Galvani a wide berth from then on.

As with venomous snakes, an electric fish has some discretion over the amount of voltage it unleashes, and would probably as soon not have to waste energy on something it cannot eat, so a defensive shock is designed to discourage, not necessarily kill, an attacker. Because Galvani ate pellets and the occasional earthworm or piece of frozen fish, I never saw him use his extraordinary weapon for killing prey. But I suspect that the fish who mysteriously died—all of them cichlids of one sort or another, and all young specimens around four or five inches—had received a defensive shock from Galvani and were simply not sturdy enough to withstand it, dying of stress or perhaps even some internal injury.

When I dismantled the tank, Galvani was still going strong and at last report, is still alive—when I last saw him he was perhaps fifteen inches long. If he has a lifespan comparable to some other big, slow-growing fish, he will be around for a long, long time to come.

Opossums Immune to Poisons

Piccolo Namek/Creative Commons

This fascinating (and entertaining) article explains how Virginia opossums were found to be immune to many venoms, including those produced by cobras and other animals they never encounter, as well as toxins like ricin. Scientists have isolated the toxin-killing agent in the possum and hope to turn it into a universal antidote humans can use. They've already proved it can confer immunity on rats. 

What are Opossums? ‹ Bittel Me This 

"We’re talking timber rattlers, cottonmouths, Russell’s vipers and common Asiatic cobras. We know this because scientists rounded up a bunch of nasties and forced them to bite a bunch of unfortunate opossums, the latter of which responded like it was a mild bee sting. "

Update: In another interesting venom-related story, scientists have found scorpion venom kills MRSA, the notorious drug-resistant strain of Staph, as well as other resistant bacteria. Findings like this are one reason for preserving species: nature has already solved a lot of the chemistry problems we'll soon be facing. 

Thanks to Erin for the tip.

Lioness vs. Farmer

Looks like a case of an animal protecting her cub: 

Zimbabwe Lion Attacks Local Farmer, Joel Ngwenya

""The lioness looked straight into my eyes, staring and roaring," Ngwenya told the paper from a hospital.

It pinned him down with its claws and continued staring at him "face to face," he said. The lioness briefly moved away toward a lion cub then turned back on him."

A Heron Fishing

Photography by Dee Puett

Hyenas Kill Two, Injure Six

Tram2/Creative Commons

Two children killed in hyena attack

"A pack of hyenas has attacked a family in Kenya, killing two children and injuring six others.

A 10-year-old boy mauled in the attack last week has been airlifted to a hospital in Nairobi for specialised treatment"

Kenya is home to three different species of hyena. The brown hyena has been implicated in only one attack on a human that I know of. The striped hyena is an occasional predator of human children. This case, however, looks like the work of the far more dangerous spotted hyena, a significant predator of humans. There have been other, similar cases of spotted hyenas attacking entire families and even refugee encampments to take several victims at once. Sometimes this species stages a prolonged attack, even in the face of armed opposition. The injured boy sustained serious facial damage. That, too, is a trademark of the spotted hyena, which sometimes uses its powerful jaws to remove face, limbs, or genitals and eat them, not necessarily as part of further predation. 

Related Posts: 
Cannibal Attack in Perspective (including choice quotes about facial injuries caused by spotted hyenas)
Hyenas Maul 17
What Eats People, Part 15: Spotted Hyenas
Spotted Hyena Attack

Thanks to Dee for the tip.

Coyote vs. Cougar

Interesting footage from a wilderness area in Southern California. Thanks to D'Arcy for the tip.

Related Post: Fatal Coyote Attack

Chimpanzees Escape at the Hanover Zoo

A rather breathless article from the Telegraph:

Chimpanzees pictured rampaging through Hanover Zoo - Telegraph

"Five chimpanzees caused havoc at Hanover Zoo when they escaped their enclosure, injured a five-year-old girl and caused the zoo to be evacuated.

The animals climbed out of their enclosures by using branches as makeshift ladders and escaping over the fences.

One chimp knocked a five-year-old girl to the ground, causing a cut to her head and bruises to her face."

These recent chimp escapes remind me of another that occurred in Kansas City a couple of years ago, receiving surprisingly little coverage. Most chimp escapes don't end in tragedy, and it's only since the attack on Charla Nash a few years back that the average citizen has begun to take them seriously. 

Thanks to Croconut for the news tip. 

Aquatic Attacks (Beaver and Otter)

Possibly your only chance this year to see a dead beaver in an ice chest. This one was killed with a BB gun after injuring two children.

2 girls injured after beaver attack in Spotsylvania County lake - DC Breaking Local News Weather Sports FOX 5 WTTG: "A beaver attack on Sunday morning at Lake Anna in Spotsylvania County has left two sisters seriously injured.

The girls were rushed to Spotsylvania Regional Medical Center after the 65-pound animal bit both of them, leaving each with serious wounds to their leg.

Meanwhile, in Minnesota:

A woman suffered some 25 bites when her swim was interrupted by an otter. This would be a river otter, not to be confused with the giant otters discussed here recently. 

Minn. Swimmer Recovering After Attacked by Otter Near Duluth | KSTP TV - Minneapolis and St. Paul: "The attack lasted for about seven minutes. When Prudhomme's father heard her screams, he jumped into his boat to help.

The Department of Natural Resources says there have only been 40 otter attacks in the U.S. in the last 20 years. Animal experts believe the otter in Prudhomme's case may have been a mother attempting to protect her young."

Invasive Giant African Land Snails

Tomas Vokaty/Creative Commons

Of all the exotic animals that have invaded Florida—and there have been a lot, from Gambian pouched rats to wild boars to Burmese pythons—my favorite is a nematode called the rat lungworm. It’s thin as a sewing thread and less than an inch long. Other invaders are crassly direct in their trouble-making. Recently, for example, a study published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) blamed the invading giant snakes for the disappearance of mammals in the Everglades. It cited a 99% drop in sightings of opossums and raccoons, a 94% drop in sightings of whitetailed deer, and so on. The pythons eat the natives, says the report; it’s as simple as that. 

But the rat lungworm only hurts other animals by getting eaten. That happens because, like thousands of other nematode worms, it’s a parasite. You’ve probably heard of its cousin Trichinella spiralis, the reason we overcook pork. It’s famous, of course, for taking up residence in the human intestine. The rat lungworm is different. It takes up residence in the brain, causing headache, stiff neck, vomiting, visual disturbances, and malfunctions in the sense of touch. But let’s not rush to that. First, a little background, a little biography. 

The obvious sign of rat lungworm is the dramatic appearance of giant land snails. A giant land snail looks like other snails, moist wrinkles of yellow hide pulsing as its two antennae probe ahead of the muscular foot that constitutes its body. These creatures are native to Africa, but lately they have been crawling the lanais of North America. Like the giant snakes, they probably arrived as pets, though imported produce is another possibility. The giant land snail can grow a shell a foot long. Even one half that size is a rippling, muscular handful. They are not picky eaters; leafy greens will do, but so will 500 other kinds of plants. The snail laps at any handy food. Since its tongue fairly bristles with tooth-like spikes, the result is to gouge holes in the food, whether it’s a fruit, a leaf, or even a stucco wall. And they can reproduce like mad, each snail laying twelve hundred eggs per year. (They’re hermaphrodites, by the way, so any two can fertilize each other.)  Farmers in Florida are feeling apprehensive. So are home owners; that plaster-licking habit can render buildings unsafe for use.

But what does this have to do with worms? It is, as they say in Hollywood, complicated.

The rat lungworm begins life as an egg in the arteries that supply the lungs of a rat. From there, it follows the blood stream into the lungs proper, then crawls to the throat. The rat swallows it. Now it travels through the gut, finally making its exit in the rat’s droppings. 

Getting swallowed is, in fact, a big part of the lungworm’s life plan. Ideally, some animal with low standards—a giant land snail, say—will come along and swallow it with the rat’s droppings. It’s not built for crawling, but in a pinch, it can swim in search of a snail by thrashing about like a fire hose. 

Inside a snail, the lungworm matures further. It bides its time, waiting for its snail host to meet a gruesome fate. (Remember, its life depends on getting swallowed over and over.) Ah, but what would eat a softball-sized gobbet of snail? 

A rat would. They’re not picky. The worm survives the eating. Once inside the rat, it travels to the brain. There, it finally reaches adulthood. The rat doesn’t mind. Parasite and host have spent countless generations adapting to each other. They get along. The worm swims the bloodstream to the lungs, and there, having engaged in romance, lays its eggs. We’ve come full circle. 

What keeps the well-informed Floridian from treating the giant land snail as an economy-sized escargot is the lungworm. A single giant land snail may contain thousands of lungworm larvae. If we eat the snails, the worms, unschooled in our pretensions, treat us as rats. They proceed to the brain. However, they find us inhospitable hosts, and they die. It’s at this point that we fall sick, as our bodies react to the disintegration of the parasite. The result is a kind of meningitis. Grave as the symptoms sound, they generally pass in a week or two. Still, nobody seems to enjoy them. 

Of course we could choose not to eat giant land snails. The problem is that they may have left their lungworms lying around in produce. We may also eat something—a crab or a shrimp, say—which has itself eaten an infected snail.

The pythons look more dangerous, of course. I often hear people fretting that they’ll slither into houses and eat babies. But for direct impact on human lives, look to the snails and their cargo of tiny parasites. 

Related Post: Gordiid Worms

Great White Shark Bites Man in Half

A spectacular fatality in Perth. Predictably, a politician is speculating that there are too many great whites. In fact, the great white remains endangered and can't possibly bounce back within a short span of years because it's a slow-growing species. The only population that's growing here is the human one. 

Beaches Closed After Surfer Is Bitten In Two - Yahoo! News UK

"He was surfing near Wedge Island, north of Perth, with a friend when he was mauled by the huge shark, said to be up to 16ft (five metres) long.

A man jet-skiing near him said it was a gruesome scene, with "half a torso" being all that remained of Mr Linden."

On a different note, here's interesting footage of a whale shark sucking the contents out of a fishing net. The whale shark, largest of all fish, is a harmless filter-feeder.

More about shark attacks--and shark conservation--in my National Geographic eBook short:

Zoo Tigers Kill Intruder

Wayne T. Allison

Tigers kill man who scaled zoo enclosure - ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

"A man was killed by tigers at a Danish zoo on Wednesday after he scaled a fence and crossed a moat to get into their enclosure.

The man, in his early 20s, was savaged by three tigers after he broke into Copenhagen Zoo in the early hours of the morning. He was dead when staff arrived for work."

Chimpanzees Escape in Las Vegas

1 chimp dead, 1 tranquilized after Vegas escape - Wire Weird News - The Sacramento Bee:

"Two chimpanzees escaped a Las Vegas backyard and rampaged through a neighborhood Thursday, pounding on cars and jumping into at least one vehicle before police killed one primate and tranquilized the other, authorities said."

Raccoons Attack Woman

According to this report from the Seattle area, the victim suffered more than 100 wounds. In a previous attack I've read of, the group of coons turned out to be a mother and her nearly grown offspring. 

Pack of raccoons attacks woman in Lakewood - Seattle News - ""She took off running for her residence," Lawler said. "Five or six raccoons chased her, eventually knocked her down and attacked her."

Lawler said a neighbor heard the commotion and witnessed at least three large raccoons maul the woman for 15 to 20 seconds. "

Thanks to Bob Haynie for the news tip.

Teen Loses Part of Arm in Alligator Attack

Moore Haven teen loses part of arm in alligator attack | "As Fred was being rushed to Lee Memorial Hospital, a frantic search began for the gator - and the arm inside the creature's belly."

Thanks to Dee for the news tip. 

Monster Crocodiles, Part 3: Crocodile vs. Dinosaur

by guest writer and artist Hodari Nundu

Kaprosuchus sizing up their prey
Go to the beginning of this series

Most books tell us that dinosaurs dominated the world with an iron claw during 160 million years or so. They were so big, so fierce and so powerful that all other animals had to flee from them (becoming flyers, like pterosaurs, or aquatic like crocodiles) or become so small and insignificant that dinosaurs wouldn´t even pay any attention to them (like mammals).

Kaprosuchus, the Boar Croc, is only one of many newly discovered creatures that seem to challenge this idea. Here we have a dinosaur-eating, sabertoothed crocodile that coexisted and probably competed with some of the largest meat-eating dinosaurs known.

And that's not all; the remains of a similarly-sized land crocodile, Pissarrachampsa, were found in Brazil in 2011, suggesting that this lineage of dinosaur-eaters may have been more widely distributed than previously thought.

Some scientists have even noted that where land crocodiles were abundant, meat-eating dinosaurs were scarce.

Not all land crocodiles were big game hunters, however. In 2010, the fossils of a strange little land crocodile were found. It had a short snout, long slender legs, and teeth incredibly similar to those of a mammal.

In fact, it looked a lot like the reptilian version of a small feline, hence the name it was given: Pakasuchus, the cat-croc.

At 50 cm long, it was certainly the size of a house cat and probably behaved in a similar way. It may have been nocturnal, hunting for small mammals, reptiles and baby dinosaurs and killing them with its canine-like front teeth. In order to become more agile, it had lost most of its body armor, but it retained it on its tail. It is possible that its heavy armored tail was its main defense against predators.

Even stranger was Simosuchus, whose remains were found in Madagascar. This creature measured less than one meter long, had a short tail and a blunt snout, and its maple-leaf-shaped teeth suggest it was herbivorous.

Its robust, erect limbs suggest it didn´t swim, and it may instead have been a burrower. Simosuchus is therefore the most extreme example of crocodylomorph diversification; it would never be mistaken for a crocodile in our times.

Other Cretaceous crocs were more typical in appearance. Perhaps the most famous of all is Deinosuchus, which many of us knew first as Phobosuchus in popular books. Either way, the name means "frightening" or "terrifying" crocodile, and the name fits it perfectly.

Although technically an alligator relative, Deinosuchus looked like a scaled up crocodile, measuring at least 12 meters long.

It lived in what is today North America, including Mexico, where scutes from its armor have been found, as well as bite marks in the bones of its dinosaur prey.

Deinosuchus is often depicted as coexisting with Tyrannosaurus rex; this, however, is inaccurate, as the giant crocodilian disappeared millions of years before the rise of the "king of dinosaurs". In fact, for as long as Deinosuchus existed, no carnivorous dinosaur grew to particularly large size. The monstrous crocodilian had monopolized the top of the food chain.

Not satisfied with ruling the swamps and rivers of its time, Deinosuchus, like modern day saltwater crocodiles, seems to have lived in marine habitats as well, and there's good evidence that it swam across the Western Interior Sea, the shallow body of water that divided North America in half.


At the end of the Cretaceous, 65 million years ago, a series of catastrophic events caused a great number of species to die out. The most famous casualties of this mass extinction were of course dinosaurs (except for birds and perhaps a few large species that faded into oblivion over the course of the next millennia).

Many unique crocodiles, like the aforementioned Simosuchus, disappeared as well. Some, however, survived, and found themselves in a silent world in which large meat eating dinosaurs were gone. Without competitors, crocodilians quickly started to diversify again, ready to take over the vacant niches left by their distant cousins.

If it hadn´t been for mammals, which also diversified at the time, it is possible that crocodiles would've given rise to the dominant lineages of future times. They were certainly adaptable enough.

Mammals, however, had some advantages over them. One of them was warm-bloodedness, which allowed mammals to conquer habitats and regions that crocodiles could not. Eventually, mammals secured their place as the dinosaur's successors. But even then, they had to be alert; crocodilians started evolving into monstrous and deadly forms. One of them, the three meter long Pristichampsus, had large, blunt toenails, more like hooves than claws, and was able to run at high speed. Not even early horses were safe from this land crocodile, able to walk either bipedally or on all fours.


Even more formidable were the sebecids, a group of short snouted land crocodiles with blade-like, flesh-slicing teeth like carnivorous dinosaurs. The largest sebecid, Barinasuchus, was a nine meter long monster that roamed the forests of what would become South America.

It was not only the largest land crocodile of all times, but also the largest post-Cretaceous land predator known. To the hapless mammals that lived in these Eocene forests, it was as if dinosaurs had never disappeared.

As time went on, mammals became more and more successful. Many forests disappeared, and many herbivores became adapted to open plains. Being cold blooded, crocodiles, even the land-based ones, were limited as to how fast they could run, and for how long. When the warm-blooded mammals evolved into lightning fast runners, only other mammals (and the legendary, towering “terror birds”) could keep up with them. Felines, canines and other carnivorans appeared, and land crocodiles started to become a thing of the past.

By the Middle Miocene, the sebecids (the lineage of land crocodiles to which Barinasuchus belonged), had disappeared. Crocodiles simply couldn´t compete with the warm-blooded killers that were evolving-- bears, sabertoothed tigers, giant hyenas. In most of the world, crocodiles became restricted to the habitats we relate them to nowadays: rivers, lakes, swamps.

The very last land crocodiles survived as relicts in Australia and nearby islands, where the most formidable predatory mammals were absent. Early aborigines probably encountered one of the most formidable when they arrived to Australia 40,000 years ago: Quinkana was the size of the largest saltwater crocodiles and had dinosaur-like flesh-slicing teeth. It probably tore a few humans apart before being exterminated itself.

Australia had also been home to a strange, probably tree-dwelling crocodilian named Trilophosuchus during the Miocene epoch. This creature measured about 1.5 meters long and held its head high when walking, like a monitor lizard and unlike most crocodilians today.

The Miocene also saw some of the most terrifyingly large crocodilians ever to have evolved.

8 million years ago, the region known today as the Amazon basin was a huge inland sea, the Pebas sea.

Purussaurus meets its prehistoric rivals

All sorts of strange creatures, from cetaceans to gharials to giant turtles lived in this sea, and all of them were food for the monstrous reptile that sat at the top of the food chain: Purussaurus, a giant caiman measuring up to 13 meters long, perhaps more. Unlike the long, slender snout of Sarcosuchus or Machimosaurus, the skull of Purussaurus was broad and massive, like that of the modern day broad-snouted caiman. Its teeth were small and blunt, especially adapted to crush any unfortunate animal it could catch, including turtles the size of dining room tables, whose fossil skeletons show proof of the caiman's terrible appetite; many of them lack huge portions of their shell or even entire limbs due to Purussaurus' attentions.

Also from the Miocene, the enormous Rhamphosuchus looked a lot like a gharial, although its closest living relative is actually the false gharial. Its fossilized remains, found in India, suggest a length of at least 11 meters long, although some estimates have suggested a much larger size. If, as some believe, Rhamphosuchus could grow up to 18 meters long, it would be as long as the longest carnivorous dinosaur, and likely much heavier. Unfortunately, since its remains are not complete, it is impossible to know if this colossal fish-eater is, as has been suggested, the largest crocodilian of all time.

Spinosaurus meets Stomatosuchus

Ironically, it is possible that in the end this title will be claimed by a docile creature, a monster only in size but not in temperament. Just as crocodiles gave rise to ferocious dinosaur hunters and sea monsters, they also produced some species that, although gigantic, would probably pose no threat to humans if they existed today. These animals are the stomatosuchids and the aegyptosuchids.

Found mostly in Africa, these Cretaceous crocodiles had flat heads with diminutive teeth, and large gular sacs. Some scientists believe they were filter-feeders that spent most, if not all of their time in the water, feeding on very small fish and other similar prey.

Some of them, like Stomatosuchus, grew to 12 meters long, being as large as the fearsome Sarcosuchus. Others, like the recently discovered Aegisuchus, may have been even larger. With an estimate length of 22 meters, Aegisuchus may have been the crocodilian equivalent of a whale- proving that the history of crocodilians was every bit as complex, fantastic and successful as that of dinosaurs or mammals.

That crocodiles today are all similar in shape and behavior may suggest to some that their lineage is finally over, and that eventually, these last remnants of a once glorious dynasty will fall into darkness.

But let's not underestimate them. Remember that all crocodylomorphs evolved from a few small, agile terrestrial hunters that also looked very similar to each other. Who knows what modern day crocs may give rise to one day, provided they survive past the age of men.

Monster Crocodiles, Part 2: Primeval

by guest writer and artist Hodari Nundu

Crocodylus thorbjarnarsoni seizes its prey

Go to the beginning of this series

The reason why crocodiles are more dangerous than sharks is that we are much more likely to meet them, and when we do, the crocodile is more likely to see us as prey than the shark.

According to many shark experts, these fish bite people for a variety of reasons but many attacks seem triggered by curiosity rather than actual predatory urges. Sharks lack hands and fingers to examine new, unknown objects. They often explore things by biting them. This is why, even if a great white shark does not necessarily want to kill a human being, an innocent exploratory bite can spell doom for its victim.

Crocodiles, on the other hand, have always seen us as prey. Unlike sharks, they coexisted with us from the very beginning. When our primate ancestors abandoned the jungle and became savannah-dwellers, crocodiles of immense size populated rivers. The fossilized remains of one of these crocodiles were found recently in Tanzania.

They came from a monster up to 7.5 meters long- larger than the largest Nile or Saltwater crocodiles recorded for our times. The beast had a huge, heavy skull adorned with a pair of crests or "horns" which revealed it to be a different species from today's Nile crocodile. Scientists named it Crocodylus anthropophagus, the "man-eating crocodile", as bite marks that matched its teeth perfectly had been found in the bones of our hominin ancestors. An even larger species, Crocodylus thorbjarnarsoni, lived at about the same time in Kenya. This one was 8.2 meters long, or as the press put it, “big enough to star in Lake Placid”. 

Because crocodiles lived in rivers, which were vital to the survival of humans, there was simply no way of escaping them. Other predators, like big cats, wolves and hyenas, could be frightened with fire and other weapons. Crocodiles were different. Like sharks in horror movies, they waited under the surface, invisible, and attacked by surprise; and once they had you in their clutches, they were simply too powerful to be fought.

Even the arrival of civilization couldn´t stop crocodile attacks. In Ancient Egypt, land predators such as lions and leopards were slowly exterminated, and attacks became a rarity. Crocodiles, on the other hand, were an ever present threat along the edges of the Nile. The Egyptians even had a special god, the crocodile-headed Sobek, to protect them from the voracious reptiles. There's even a legend from more recent times about an archaeologist in Egypt who found a statue of Sobek by the river; removing it, however, was a mistake, as crocodile attacks became incredibly frequent, and eventually, he was forced to put Sobek back in his place; only then did the attacks stop.

To the Greeks and other Europeans, the crocodile was a most fascinating beast. Absent in Europe, it was therefore little understood, and in Medieval bestiaries, it is often shown with a wolf or lion-like appearance, sometimes with spikes on its back, and more often than not, weeping over the body of a human victim. For according to many authors of the time, "if the crocodile findeth a man by the brim of the water or by the cliff, he slayeth him if he may, and then he weepeth upon him, and swalloweth him at the last".

This tendency to shed tears during a meal eventually would make the crocodile a symbol of hypocrisy, of false remorse. The expression "crocodile tears" is a legacy of this legend, which has indeed a real life basis. Crocodiles do shed tears while feeding. But these are not tears of remorse, false or otherwise. It is simply the crocodile's way of keeping its eyes moist while out of the water, for it cannot swallow under the surface, and its eyes easily dry out in the air.

In Roman times, crocodiles were sometimes seen at the Coliseum. The amphitheater was flooded and epic naval battles were recreated. Crocodiles were released into the water to devour any hapless gladiator or slave that fell from the ships.

Other than this, however, the crocodile remained more or less a fantastic animal in Europe for a long time. Unable to survive for long in cold climate, the crocodile was restricted to tropical regions. But wherever it was found, it was a constant danger along waterways, a dreaded and often revered force of nature.

To the Aztec and many other Mesoamerican cultures, the Universe itself rested on the back of a gigantic crocodile-like beast. The souls of the departed had to face a terrible crocodile god during their journey towards Paradise.

But although modern day crocodiles are big, scary and deadly enough to inspire legends, nightmares and B movies, the truth is we only have to deal with a shadow of what was once a frightening menagerie of monster crocodilians.

We often think of crocodiles as "living fossils"; many people, including crocodile experts, will tell you that they haven´t changed much in millions of years.

This is only half true. The basic design of all modern crocodiles- the low body, short legs, long flattened tail and deadly jaws that make them such perfect ambush predators- has indeed existed for millions of years. It has even been "used" by non-crocodilian predators, including early whales and gigantic amphibians from pre-dinosaur times.

But crocodiles themselves are of rather recent origins, and they are only one of many branches of crocodylomorphs, as scientists call them. Some of these branches were truly the stuff of nightmares.


Like their cousins the dinosaurs, crocodylomorphs started out small. The first ones appeared in the Late Triassic, over 200 million years ago, and they coexisted with the very first dinosaurs.

They were small, agile and completely land-based. Rivers were already occupied by other sorts of predators—giant amphibians resembling large-headed salamanders, and the fearsome phytosaurs, which looked quite a lot like crocodiles themselves. Crocodylomorphs would have to wait until these rivals disappeared to fill the niche of the freshwater predator themselves. Meanwhile, they diversified into plenty of different and often bizarre breeds.

This diversification became most extreme during the Jurassic period. To avoid competition with dinosaurs, many became aquatic. The most extraordinary ones were the sea crocodiles.

Today, the saltwater crocodile often lives in coastal waters and may even swim long distances from island to island. They have been seen fighting- and devouring- sharks in the sea. But they are still amphibious animals, and must return to land to rest and to lay their eggs.

The sea crocodiles of the Jurassic were different. They became so well adapted to the ocean that if one of them appeared today, we would probably mistake it for some sort of bizarre mutation- a cross between a crocodile and a fish. Many of them lost their body armor; their webbed feet turned into actual flippers, and their tails turned into caudal fins, very reminiscent of a shark's.

They probably gave birth to live young, like many other sea reptiles of the time. Free from the need of returning to land, they spent their lives in open waters. Many, like Metriorhynchus, had long, slender snouts that would resemble some living crocodilians, like the gharial; they were superbly adapted to capture fish. Usually, they measured about three meters long-- smallish compared to our largest crocodiles-- but they were far better swimmers.

Dakosaurus vs. the predatory marine reptiles known as Eurhinosaurs

Not all of them were fish eaters, however. In 1987, the remains of an unusual (well, especially unusual) four or five meter long sea crocodile were found in Argentina. Instead of a long gharial-like snout, it had a short and deep skull, very reminiscent of a carnivorous dinosaur's. The scientists nicknamed it Godzilla for this reason.

A later study found that this sea crocodile, formally known as Dakosaurus, could slice its prey into smaller chunks with its large, blade-like serrated teeth. This is completely different to the teeth of modern crocodiles which are conical and blunt, meant to pierce and hold but completely unable to slice.

Indeed, Dakosaurus was a crocodile turned by evolution into the Jurassic equivalent of a great white shark. It didn´t chase after small fish like its cousins; it went for the giant ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs of the time, even those larger than itself, and bit off huge chunks of their flesh, killing them via blood loss. With monsters like Dakosaurus roaming the seas, it is little wonder that, to our knowledge, no dinosaurs ever managed to conquer the Jurassic oceans.

Machimosaurus attacks Dakosaurus, to the alarm of a dinosaur called Eustreptospondylus

As if Dakosaurus wasn´t scary enough, the Jurassic sea would give rise to even larger crocodylomorphs. The largest we know of was Machimosaurus, found in Europe in 1837. Unlike Dakosaurus, it had a crocodile-like body and blunt, conical crocodile teeth. However, it was big enough to make a meal out of Dakosaurus- at least 9 meters long, making it not only the largest of its kind, but also one of the top predators of its days.

Although its snout was long and slender, there's good evidence that Machimosaurus, being so large, could feed on anything it wanted and not just fish. Its bite marks have been found in the fossilized shells of sea turtles and even in the bones of a giant long-necked dinosaur.

Scientists believe Machimosaurus swam long distances in the open sea, but probably hunted near coasts, snatching any unfortunate animal that got too close.

Machimosaurus was only the first in a long line of crocodylomorphs (from different families) that achieved monstrous sizes.

During the Cretaceous, both dinosaurs and crocs would reach their greatest diversity. The largest carnivorous dinosaurs, such as Spinosaurus, Carcharodontosaurus, Giganotosaurus and of course, the iconic Tyrannosaurus rex were all from the Cretaceous. The biggest of them all, Spinosaurus, could weigh up to 9 tons. But the largest Cretaceous crocodiles dwarfed even this monster.

Sarcosuchus puts a dinosaur to flight

In 1966, two paleontologists named a new species of Cretaceous crocodile as Sarcosuchus imperator, the flesh-eating emperor croc. Despite its awesome name, this beast remained obscure until 1997, when American paleontologist Paul Sereno found additional remains in Niger.

These new finds were widely publicized and Sarcosuchus finally became famous under the nickname of Super Croc. It was its monstrous size that captured the public's imagination; at 12 meters long, with an almost 2 meter skull and probably up to 10 tons, it was claimed to be the largest crocodile of all times.

Sarcosuchus coexisted with large carnivorous dinosaurs such as Suchomimus, but the general consensus is that it was the dinosaurs, rather than the crocodile, who were in constant danger of being eaten. After all, dinosaurs had to drink, and an adult Sarcosuchus was too big to survive solely on fish.

As if this wasn´t bad enough for the hapless dinosaurs, they had another crocodilian enemy on land.

The remains of this creature were also found by Paul Sereno, and described in 2009. It was obviously a crocodile, but unlike any other crocodile ever found. It had a pair of horn-like crests on its head, and some of its teeth jutted out of the mouth like enormous tusks. The creature received the nickname of Boar Croc, and was described as "a sabertooth tiger clad on armor". It was not a water-based ambush hunter. It was a land-dwelling predator able to walk and run at high speed, and its enormous teeth were probably an adaptation to deal with large, thick skinned prey; a six meter long dinosaur hunter.

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