These Ancient Crocodiles Had a Taste for Human Flesh

Image: Shutterstock
Millions of years ago in East Africa, gruesome predators hunted our human ancestors on land and in the water.

A new study published by researchers at the University of Iowa announced the discovery of two ancient species of giant dwarf crocodile that roamed the African continent between 15 and 18 million years ago.

“Giant dwarf” might seem like an oxymoron (think “jumbo shrimp”) but there was nothing silly – or small – about the creatures, called Kinyang mabokoensis and Kinyang tchernovi. They were early relatives of modern dwarf crocodiles; hence the name. But present-day dwarf crocodiles grow to around four feet long, and the ancient Kinyang crocs were three times that size, topping out at 12 feet or so.

By studying their skulls, which are housed at the National Museums of Kenya, in Nairobi, the University of Iowa researchers determined the crocodiles had short snouts and large teeth. “They had what looked like this big grin that made them look really happy, but they would bite your face off if you gave them the chance,” Christopher Brochu, professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Iowa, said in a statement.

Skull of Kinyang mabokoensis based on the holotype specimen. Scalebar = 10cm. Image: Armin Reindl

And it’s likely that actually did happen. When Kinyang roamed present-day Kenya, the region was largely covered in dense forest, and the earliest hominids were diverging from the chimpanzees and bonobos. Kinyang spent most of its time lurking in the forest or just beyond the riverbank, waiting to ambush prey, including those earliest people.

“They were opportunistic predators, just as crocodiles are today. It would have been downright perilous for ancient humans to head down to the river for a drink,” Brochu said. “These were the biggest predators our ancestors faced.”

Kinyang went extinct near the end of the Miocene epoch, as the climate shifted and the landscape changed from rainy forests to savannah. But its prey, of course, persisted and continued to evolve. A friendlier climate and fewer predators, Brochu says, “have been linked to the rise of the larger bipedal primates that gave rise to modern humans.”

WATCH NEXT: The Biggest Crocodiles Ever Recorded