Biggest crocodile that ever lived

A crocodile large enough to swallow humans once lived in East Africa, according to a May 2012 paper in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

The illustration shows the comparative sizes of ancient/modern crocodiles and ancient/modern humans. Illustration by Chris Brochu.

Paper author Christopher Brochu is an associate professor of geoscience at University of Iowa. He said:

It’s the largest known true crocodile. It may have exceeded 27 feet in length. By comparison, the largest recorded Nile crocodile was less than 21 feet, and most are much smaller.

The newly-discovered species lived between two and four million years ago in Kenya. It resembled its living cousin, the Nile crocodile, but was more massive.

Brochu recognized the new species from fossils that he examined three years ago at the National Museum of Kenya in Nairobi. Some were found at sites known for important human fossil discoveries. Brochu said:

It lived alongside our ancestors, and it probably ate them. He explains that although the fossils contain no evidence of human/reptile encounters, crocodiles generally eat whatever they can swallow, and humans of that time period would have stood no more than four feet tall.

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.

Brochu added that there likely would have been ample opportunity for humans to encounter crocs. That’s because early man, along with other animals, would have had to seek water at rivers and lakes where crocodiles lie in wait.

Nile crocodile. Photo credit: wikimedia

The crocodile Crocodylus thorbjarnarsoni is named after John Thorbjarnarson, famed crocodile expert and Brochu’s colleague who died of malaria while in the field several years ago.

Brochu says Crocodylus thorbjarnarsoni is not directly related to the present-day Nile crocodile. This suggests that the Nile crocodile is a fairly young species and not an ancient “living fossil,” as many people believe. Borchu said:

We really don’t know where the Nile crocodile came from. But it only appears after some of these prehistoric giants died out.

Bottom line: A paper in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology in May, 2012 reports the discovery of an ancient crocodile large enough to swallow humans that lived two to four million years ago in East Africa.

Read more from the University of Iowa

May 11, 2012

Like what you read?
Subscribe and receive daily news delivered to your inbox.

Your email address will only be used for EarthSky content. Privacy Policy
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

More from 


View All