October 31, 2012
From the time of their origin around 230 million years ago, to the extinction of the non-avian forms 66 million years ago, dinosaurs ruled the Earth. That’s how we like to characterize the Mesozoic menagerie, anyway. We take the long success of the dinosaurs as a sign of their long-lived and terrifying domination, but, despite our belief that they were the most vicious creatures of all time, there were creatures that even the dinosaurs had reason to fear. Chief among them was Deinosuchus – North America’s “terrible crocodile.”
Between 80 and 73 million years ago, when North America was divided in two by the shallow Western Interior Seaway, the marshes and swamps along the coasts were ruled by Deinosuchus. Fossils of this Cretaceous cousin of modern alligators have been found from Mexico to Montana and in east coast states such as North Carolina and Georgia, tracing the margins of the western subcontinent Laramidia and its eastern counterpart, Appalachia. For the most part, paleontologists have found the bony armor, vertebrae, and teeth of Deinosuchus, but pieces of jaw and partial skeletons found in places such as Texas and Utah indicate that this alligatoroid was a giant, growing over thirty feet in length and approaching forty feet among the biggest individuals.
During the heyday of Deinosuchus, adults of the aquatic ambush predator were among the largest carnivores in their ecosystems. The enormous Tyrannosaurus rex was over five million years off, and the tyrannosaurs of the time were not quite so long or bulky. (Teratophoneus, found in southern Utah among strata that also yield Deinosuchus, was about twenty feet long, and Daspletosaurus from Montana grew to be about thirty feet long.) A fully mature Deinosuchus would have outstretched and outweighed the dinosaur competition, and would have undoubtedly been a deadly apex predator in the water habitats it haunted.
The skull of Deinosuchus testifies to its destructive potential. The alligatoroid’s skull was large, broad, and equipped with an array of teeth deployed to pierce and crush. Indeed, even though there were other giant crocodylomorphs of near-equal size during the Mesozoic (such as the narrow-snouted Sarcosuchus), Deinosuchus appears to be unique in having the anatomical necessities to take down hadrosaurs and other unwary dinosaurs at the water’s edge. And, thanks to tooth-damaged fossils, we know that Deinosuchus truly did dine on dinosaurs. Two years ago, Héctor Rivera-Sylva and colleagues described hadrosaur bones bearing tell-tale Deinosuchus toothmarks from Mexico, and similar finds have been reported from Texas. There may be other candidates in museum drawers elsewhere.
Of course, we don’t know whether the bitten bones record hunting or scavenging. Unless the injuries show signs of healing, toothmarks on bones record feeding rather than hunting behavior. The evidence only takes us so far. Adult Deinosuchus were apparently capable of taking down dinosaurs, but, as yet, there’s no direct evidence of such an incident. Indeed, while images of Deinosuchus chomping on dinosaurs fires our imagination, we actually know relatively little about how this alligatoroid fed and what it ate. Probably, like modern alligators, large Deinosuchus were generalists that snagged fish, turtles, and whatever carrion it happened upon. We don’t know for sure. Nevertheless, dinosaurs in the habitat of this monstrous croc would have been wise to carefully approach the water’s edge, looking for teeth and scutes hiding just beneath the surface.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.