Crocodiles may be the modern creature closest to the dinosaurs, but their size and ferocity rarely gets them any respect for this longevity. As proof, paleontologists in China discovered a new species of 19-foot-long crocodiles that roamed there in great numbers a mere 3,000 years ago – but they’re no longer with us because terrified people ritually beheaded them to extinction just a few hundred years ago. Another reason why we can’t have nice things?
“I have studied modern crocodilians for years, but even though it’s extinct, Hanyusuchus sinensis is by far the most astonishing creature I’ve ever seen.”
Research fellow Masaya Iijima from Nagoya University Museum is one of three scientists who determined that two 3,000-year-old partially fossilized specimens of crocodile found in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong were a new species, Hanyusuchus sinensis. In a press release accompanying their new study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Iijima, Professor Minoru Yoneda from the University Museum at the University of Tokyo and Professor Jun Liu from China’s Hefei University of Technology explain how this species differs from the more common sharp-nosed crocodiles and blunt-nosed alligators – it has a longer, thinner skull and was generally larger in size. Besides the possibility that this is a missing link connecting the three families of crocodilians roaming the Earth today, these two crocs showed a unique way of dying.
“Lastly, a cutmark analysis combined with accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) radiocarbon dating of bone remains demonstrated that two individuals from Shang and Zhou dynasties in Guangdong, China, suffered head injuries and decapitation. Archaeological evidence together with historical accounts suggests the human-induced extinction of this unique crocodylian only a few hundred years ago.”
This 19-foot crocodile species apparently brought a reign of terror upon residents of Guangdong for a long time – one that included eating humans. In the ninth century, during the Tang dynasty, government official and poet Han Yu wrote of trying to get the crocodiles to leave the area by sacrificing a pig and goat – is it wise to attempt to scare crocodiles with food? Eventually, locals took a more direct, brute force approach to their problem – they beheaded the crocs. This proved effective … too effective. As the study notes, Hanyusuchus sinensis appeared to have gone extinct just a few hundred years ago – perhaps the first and only creature to be brought to extinction by beheading.
Crocodiles and alligators are not generally associated with China, but a similar creature is – and Minoru Yoneda thinks there may be a connection.
“I am not alone in thinking that the Chinese gharial, Hanyusuchus sinensis, might have left some marks themselves on ancient Chinese civilization. Some Chinese characters and maybe even myths about dragons might have been influenced by this incredible reptile. It would be the only reptile in ancient China that feasted on humans.”
Could Hanyusuchus sinensis be the inspiration for Chian’s famous dragons? That’s a question for historians. Iijima, Yoneda and Liu are focused on a more important question – can this species be de-extincted? The subfossils are recent enough that some soft tissue is preserved and genetic material could be extracted, sequenced and used to edit a close relative’s genome to bring it back.
Forget Game of Thrones … are we ready for real dragons?