Sarcosuchus (meaning “flesh crocodile”) is a genus of crocodyliform and distant relative of living crocodylians that lived 112 million years ago. It dates from the early Cretaceous Period of what is now Africa and South America and is one of the largest crocodile-like reptiles that ever lived. It was almost twice as long as the modern saltwater crocodile and weighed up to 8 tonnes.
The first remains were discovered during several expeditions led by the French paleontologist Albert-Félix de Lapparent, spanning from 1946 to 1959, in the Sahara. These remains were fragments of the skull, vertebrae, teeth and scutes. In 1964, an almost complete skull was found in Niger by the French CEA, but it was not until 1997 and 2000 that most of its anatomy became known to science, when an expedition led by the American paleontologist Paul Sereno discovered six new specimens, including one with about half the skeleton intact and most of the spine.
Sarcosuchus was a giant relative of crocodiles, with fully grown individuals estimated to have reached up to 11–12 m (36–39 ft) in total length and 8 tonnes (8.8 short tons) in weight. It had somewhat telescoped eyes and a long snout comprising 75% of the length of the skull. There were 35 teeth in each side of the upper jaw, while in the lower jaw there were 31 teeth in each side. The upper jaw was also noticeably longer than the lower one leaving a gap between them when the jaws were shut, creating an overbite. In young individuals the shape of the snout resembled that of the living gharial but in fully grown individuals it became considerably broader.
At the end of its snout, Sarcosuchus presented an expansion, known as a bulla, which has been compared to the ghara seen in gharials. However, unlike the ghara, which is only found in male gharial, the bulla is present in all Sarcosuchus skulls that have been found so far, suggesting that it was not a sexually dimorphic trait. The purpose of this structure remains enigmatic. Opinions from researchers range from it being an olfactory enhancer to being connected to a vocalization device.
The osteoderms, also known as dermal scutes, of Sarcosuchus were similar to those goniopholodids like Sunosuchus and Goniopholis, they formed an uninterrupted surface that started in the posterior part of the neck up to the middle of the tail like is seen in Araripesuchus and other basal crocodyliforms, different from the pattern seen in living crocodiles, which present discontinuity between the osteoderms of the neck and body.
A common method to estimate the size of crocodiles and crocodile-like reptiles is the use of the length of the skull measured in the midline from the tip of the snout to the back of the skull table, since in living crocodilians there is a strong correlation between skull length and total body length in subadult and adult individuals irrespective of their sex, this method is preferred for Sarcosuchus due to the absence of a complete enough skeleton.
Two regression equations were used to estimate the size of S. imperator, they were created based on measurements gathered from 17 captive gharial individuals from northern India and from 28 wild saltwater crocodile individuals from northern Australia, both datasets supplemented by available measurements of individuals over 1.5 metres (4.9 ft) in length found in the literature. The largest known skull of S. imperator (the type specimen) is 1.6 m (5.2 ft) long, and it was estimated that the individual it belonged to had a total body length of 11.65 m (38.2 ft), its snout-vent length of 5.7 m (19 ft) was estimated using linear equations for the saltwater crocodile and in turn this measurement was used to estimate its body weight at 8 tonnes (8.8 short tons). This shows that Sarcosuchus was able to reach a maximum body size not only greater than previously estimated but also greater than that of the Miocene Rhamphosuchus, only the Late Cretaceous Deinosuchus and the Miocene Purussaurus may have achieved a comparable maximum body size.
Sarcosuchus is commonly classified as part of the clade Pholidosauridae, a group of crocodile-like reptiles (Crocodyliformes) related but outside Crocodylia (the clade containing living crocodiles, alligators and gharials). Within this group it is most closely related to the North American genus Terminonaris. Most members of Pholidosauridae had long, slender snouts and they all were aquatic, inhabiting several different environments, some forms are interpreted as marine, capable of tolerating saltwater while others, like Sarcosuchus, were freshwater forms, the most primitive members of the clade, however, were found in coastal settings, zones of mixing of freshwater and marine waters. Sarcosuchus stands out among pholidosaurids for being considered a generalist predator, different from most known members of the clade which were specialized piscivores
The remains of S. imperator were found in a region of the Ténéré Desert named Gadoufaoua, more specifically in the Elrhaz Formation of the Tegama Group, dating from the late Aptian to the early Albian of the Early Cretaceous, approximately 112 million years ago. The stratigraphy of the region and the aquatic fauna that was found therein indicates that it was an inland fluvial environment, entirely freshwater in nature with a humid tropical climate. S. imperator shared the waters with the holostean fish Lepidotus and the coelacanth Mawsonia. The dinosaur fauna was represented by the iguanodontian Lurdusaurus, which was the most common dinosaur in the region, and its relative Ouranosaurus; there were also two sauropods, Nigersaurus and a currently unnamed sauropod while the theropod fauna included the spinosaurid Suchomimus, the carcharodontosaurid Eocarcharia and the abelisaurid Kryptops.
Meanwhile, S. hartti was found in the Reconcavo basin of Brazil, specifically in the Ilhas Formation of the Bahia series, it was a shallow lacustrine environment dating from the late Aptian, similar in age to the habitat of S. imperator, with similar aquatic fauna, including Lepidotus and two species of Mawsonia. The dinosaur fauna is of a very fragmentary nature and identification does not go beyond indeterminate theropod and iguanodontid remains.