Super Sized

Outside the Dallas Museum of Natural History is the Leonhardt Lagoon, a nice little pool intended to preserve a small ecosystem, a little part of the Texas habitat. Therefore small animals such as ducks, turtles, insects and grackles (as if they needed any help) have a small plot set aside just for them right outside downtown Dallas in Fair Park. There they can hang out peacefully and feed on the leftover peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and cookie crumbs from school field trips. Then, inside the museum on the first floor, behind glass, in front of painted dioramas and among fake plant life are stuffed versions of some larger animals that used to roam Texas and the American West. No one had the foresight to set aside a space for these bobcats, black bears, foxes, wolves and jaguars. When they tried to feed off the byproducts of our society they were hunted and killed. Now they are gone, or at the very best critically endangered.

But to walk up the museum's stairs is to leave this not so distant past behind and be confronted by an almost unimaginable one. Immediately, when they walk through the museum's upstairs prehistoric exhibits, visitors are struck by the sheer size of the creatures that once lived on this very same earth. Upon reaching the top of the stairs, one is greeted by the open jaws belonging to the humongous skeleton of a crocodile. So much larger than its contemporary counterparts (and even its prehistoric ones), this creature has earned the nickname "SuperCroc" and is the star of the museum's new show, National Geographic Channel Presents SuperCroc. About half of the skeleton is real, including an almost complete skull including ear bones. The rest is built from a composite of several different specimens, but the point is made. SuperCroc was a giant.

It was large enough that--though the shape is like a normal crocodile in many ways--something about it says "prehistoric." Besides the usual "teeth like daggers" descriptions, SuperCroc also has bony plates along its back that seem almost like armor plating belonging on a military vehicle. Its nasal cavity is grossly oversized, its head as long as a full-grown man, and its rib cage appears to hold enough square feet for a decent economy apartment for that very same man. SuperCroc was designed for tackling and killing beasts that human eyes have never seen. Its time was 110 million years ago in what is now sub-Sahara Africa when, at that time, rivers flowed across the now arid area. The SuperCroc potentially reached a size of 40 feet in length, but this perhaps sealed its fate rather than ensuring its survival. Though its great size eliminated danger from predators, it was forced to be dependent on larger bodies of water for movement and was therefore vulnerable to climate change. In fact, it was already extinct before the end of the age of the dinosaurs.

It is hard to feel sorry for something so large and threatening. It obviously does not belong in the here and now: It's not cute and furry, nor does it have big, doe eyes. The final nail in the coffin, so to speak, is its scientific name, Sarcosuchus imperator; that's "flesh crocodile emperor" in English. When your nickname is based in a dead language, it is inevitable your existence is more the stuff of myth than flesh and bone. Unless those bones are fossilized, of course.

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Mark Hughes