CROCODILES are among the most ancient life forms on the planet. Thai folktales are full of crocodile legends. So I was intrigued by a notice of a press conference a few days ago at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT) by some of the country’s leading lights in fossil research and paleontology.
Much of north-eastern Thailand’s Isan region is famous for dionosaur fossils. Clearly millions of years ago, dinosaurs liked Isan. In two places, the giant foot impressions of dinosaurs can still be seen.
Now researchers have discovered a new species of crocodile which lived about 100 million years ago in an area of modern Nakhon Ratchasima province.
The researchers showed us slides of the dark brown rock, about the size of a football, with the skull embedded in it. It must have been a feat to spot; the crocodile species is named after the man who found it, Dr Pratueng Jintasakul, director of the Northeastern Research Institute of Petrified Wood and Mineral Resources of Nakhon Ratchasima Rajabhat University.
It took several months and three different methods to separate the rock from the skull. The scientists had the skull displayed at the FCCT, next to the skull of a contemporary 'mugger' or marsh crocodile.
The ancient one, Khoratosuchus jintasakuli, was smaller. The teeth show it to have been a fish-eating species. A projection based on the characteristics of the skull, shows a crocodile with longer legs than the mugger, and thus probably considerably more agile on land.
It would have been about 2m long, they said. But they had no idea what it might have weighed.
I have observed several species of crocodiles in India and Sri Lanka, and photographed the fish-eating crocodile or gharial (Gavialis gangeticus, now highly endangered) and the more common mugger sharing the same pool in the Ramganga river in Corbett Tiger Reserve in north India.
One winter in Corbett Tiger Reserve, I was for a while a neighbour to the resident mugger. The mugger is Crocodylus palustris, the marsh crocodile, quite widespread in Asia and often misidentified as alligators which are a different family of crocodilians (this gets complicated, so I won’t go into it further; there is plenty of information on the Net).
The mugger just lay in the sun by the river all day, about 50m from the forest rest house where I was staying. I could approach to within about 10m, quietly and cautiously, and took pictures (sadly they were slides and badly stored, and useless now).
Even though he never budged when I was around, and seemed asleep, I could never be sure, and maintained a respectful distance.
Crocodiles – from as small as a house cat to the 40-ft 'supercroc (see http://www.disclose.tv/forum/new-crocodile-fossils-discovered-t11967.html) have remained largely unchanged for over 100 million years.
A few winter days of several hours motionless in the warm sun by the river, is in crocodilian time probably less than a lazy blink of a reptilian eye.