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'SuperCroc' Dinosaur On Display in Chicago - 2002-03-20

One of the top predators of the dinosaur era in Africa was a creature that looks like today's crocodiles. Two years ago, a team of scientists from the University of Chicago found the most complete skeleton to date of what they call "SuperCroc." The dinosaur is now on display in Chicago.

Its head was two meters long. Its body was about 12 meters long and weighed nearly eight metric tons. Its real name is Sarcosuchus imperator, which means, "flesh crocodile emperor," but Chicago paleontologist Paul Sereno calls it SuperCroc. He and his team found it in Niger two years ago.

"The first thing we walked up to was the skull of this animal. It was just stunning that there was an animal this big that would have been terrorizing dinosaurs, where we came to find Africa's dinosaurs," Paul said.

French scientists were the first to discover this species, about 40 years ago. SuperCroc is the most complete skeleton found to date about 50 percent. Paul's wife and colleague, Gabrielle Lyon, says her team's discovery is helping researchers learn more about its size, eating habits, and habitat.

"We had known, as many paleontologists have known, that there was a giant crocodile out there. When we actually found its skeleton and really started to understand just how large it was and that we would be able to build this skeleton, that was a great feeling," Gabrielle said.

Mr. Sereno says SuperCroc lived 110 million years ago and most likely ate dinosaurs. Large ones, like the 11-meter-long Suchomimus. During its two-month dig in the year 2000, his team collected not only the SuperCroc's bones, but also other artifacts in the area.

"If we left those clues in the desert, we would not have been able to do what we did here, make a scene painting for example. But, we didn't. We collected the petrified wood, sawed it with a diamond saw to see what the climate was like, because the wood preserves that as a record. We picked up every other kind of bone we could find in the area to understand what it was living with," Paul Sereno said.

The Sereno team has found previously undiscovered species of dinosaurs in Niger. Suchomimus was one of them, discovered in 1997. Others will be announced in the months and years ahead. Gabrielle Lyon calls Niger the most important location for learning about African dinosaur evolution.

"It holds all of the chapters of dinosaur evolution. One of the remarkable things is, yes, it is the Sahara Desert now, but 110 million years ago, and even 10,000 years ago, it was a very wet place: lush, with rivers, enormous trees, huge fish were living there," Ms. Lyon said.

During its 2000 dig, the Sereno team communicated with schoolchildren back in the United States, using the Internet and a satellite telephone. Part of the SuperCroc exhibit at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry recreates the team's desert camp and its messages back home.

"The fossils were scarcer than in our first area, but that did not stop us from finding a complete upper jaw of this new dinosaur that lived alongside Suchomimus," was one of Paul's messages back home.

Gabrielle Lyon also heads an organization called "Project Exploration," which tries to make science interesting and fun for children. At this exhibit, there are dinosaur fossils and other artifacts visitors can touch, and maybe spark a child's interest in becoming a scientist.

"You never know when that magic moment, when that bell will go off, when that switch is going to be thrown. We are trying to create an environment where it is more likely that that will happen," Mr.Lyon said.

The Sereno team of paleontologists plans to return to the Sahara Desert next year.