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Five enormous (and thankfully extinct) ancestors of common species


By Daniel Martins
Digital Reporter
@DFLCMartins
Friday, September 27, 2013, 6:22

When we published this story about a new find of fossils of the frighteningly huge Megalodon, it was a pretty popular read for visitors to our website.


Image: Wikimedia Commons

Image: Wikimedia Commons

At almost 20 metres in length, it was the largest shark to have ever roamed the deep, and had it not gone extinct a little under two million years ago, we're sure no one would ever have set foot in the ocean.

Here's a look at five other enormous species that went extinct long ago.

Sarcosuchus imperator was a crocodile that ate dinosaurs

Are you one of those people who’s afraid of swimming in really big rivers? You know it’s not rational, it’s just that on a primal level, you don’t know what’s in there.

100 million years ago, you’d have been totally justified, with this thing likely lurking in the shallows:

Image: Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle à Paris/ Wikimedia commons

Image: Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle à Paris/ Wikimedia commons

Its genus name “flesh crocodile” is ominous enough, but its discoverers, mindful of the terror they’d unearthed, tacked on “imperator” – meaning “emperor” – at the end of its species name.

As for just how huge it was, well, you see this guy:

That’s the present-day Saltwater Crocodile, endemic to Southeast Asia and (of course) Australia. It can grow up to six metres long.

Sarcosuchus Imperator maxed out at TWICE that, and weighed in at eight tonnes, and paleontologists reckoned the beastie probably lived up to 60 years old. Also, it ate dinosaurs. With these:

Image: Museo di Storia Naturale di Venezia/Wikimedia Commons

Image: Museo di Storia Naturale di Venezia/Wikimedia Commons

Unlike similar predators of its size, it likely lived mostly in river ecosystems at a time when Africa was joined to South America, with fossils being found in Brazil and the Sahara (which was actually lush and green back then, and was so even as late as a few thousand years ago).

All this probably isn’t very helpful to you riverphobes out there, but at the very least you can take comfort in knowing that you're 100 million years too late to encounter the largest and most terrifying thing that ever inhabited a river.

Titanoboa was 13 metres long

While you’re wandering the jungles of prehistoric South America and studiously avoiding the rivers, try watch where you step, if you want to avoid treading on Titanoboa.

Not that it would be hard to spot:

Image: Flickr/Ryan Somma

Image: Flickr/Ryan Somma

Yep. That mock-up of the beast in the Smithsonian is (or, more thankfully, WAS) big enough to swallow a fake crocodile. 

It wouldn’t be hard. When it was discovered four years ago, researchers reckoned it weighed more than a tonne and could grow up to 13 m, about twice as long as today’s anacondas and pythons, the largest living snakes.

It actually slithered the earth around 60 million years ago, AFTER the asteroid impact that ended the age of the dinosaurs.

The snake’s discovery was actually a big deal for researchers not only for its sheer size, but also because of what it could mean for studies into prehistoric climate.

The University of Toronto researcher who unearthed Titanoboa actually called it a living thermometer. Since snakes can’t regulate their body temperature like mammals do, he estimated the temperature at the time in that part of the world may  have had to have been around 30 to 34 degrees Celcius, to support a snake of that size (although that theory is by no means unanimous).

Titanoboa is yet another animal that is blissfully extinct, although these guys are doing their best to bring it back in terrifying robot form:

And yes, that’s seriously a saddle behind Mecha-Titanoboa’s head. 

It’s a project by a team of independent artists, who plan to extend the robot to match its flesh-and-blood ancestor’s full 13-metre length, to spark a debate about climate change and energy use (it actually makes perfect sense in context).

Although if climate change WAS responsible for killing off Titanoboa, we might actually be grateful.

Arthropleura was a nightmare of skittering legs

If you don’t like bugs, you might want to skip this entry:

Image: Spencer Wright/Flickr

Image: Spencer Wright/Flickr

The picture above doesn’t give much of a sense of scale, but Arthropleura, a kind of giant millipede that lived more than 290 million years ago, could grow more than two metres in length.

Yes, once upon a time, our beautiful Earth was the home of an enormous, multi-limbed creature that was longer than most people are tall. 

Some of the larger specimens would probably be around half a metre wide as well, based on fossilized tracks found in New Mexico and elsewhere.

It’s the largest-ever known land invertebrate, at a time when all terrestrial bugs were enormous compared to their modern counterparts. Oxygen levels at that period in history were more than 30 per cent (compared to around 20 per cent today), a key factor in allowing early Earth lifeforms to grow that big.

Most people have a natural aversion to any kind of super-sized bugs, so on those rare occasions when Arthropleura appears in popular culture, it’s usually portrayed as a dangerous (and carnivorous) predator.

As it happens, no fossils have been found with their mandibles intact, but scientists reckon Arthropleura probably ate plants

That, and the fact it’s been extinct for almost 300 million years, is oddly comforting.

Dunkleosteus could bite pretty much anything in half

Almost 400 million years ago, the denizens of Earth’s early oceans would have lived in terror of Dunkleosteus:

Image: Dmitry Bogdanov/Wikimedia Commons

Image: Dmitry Bogdanov/Wikimedia Commons

Ten metres long, four tonnes in weight, it was enormous, the largest-known example of a now blissfully extinct species of armoured fish.

Megalodon, which probably went extinct more than 1.5 million years ago, could actually almost grow almost twice as long, but even if the two had lived at the same time, the monster shark would have had good reason to fear Dunkleosteus.

That boney head isn’t for show, or protection. Dunkleosteus didn’t have any teeth as we know them. Instead, that thick helmet is one solid, and sharp, piece of bone, complete with fangs.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Anything finding itself in that jaw had no hope of wriggling free. Dunkleosteus had one of the strongest bites known to history – five tonnes of force. When concentrated into the end of those fangs, that number jumps to more than 36 tonnes.

And aside from having a strong bite, it also had a fast one. Apparently it could shut its mouth in 1/50th of a second, creating a kind of suction that would pull in smaller fish.

The larger fish, we presume, it just chased down and devoured. In fact, it was one of the first predators to be able to bite prey larger than itself.

We’re not paleontologists, but we’re guessing this guy didn’t have to worry about any predators.

Argentavis Magnificens could probably carry off small livestock

Picture a good-sized, healthy bald eagle specimen.

Now picture it with a wingspan three times as wide, and a face that’s a cross between a condor and vulture.

Hello, Argentavis Magnificens:

Image: Stanton F. Fink, Wikimedia Commons

Image: Stanton F. Fink, Wikimedia Commons

This creature boasted a wingspan of about seven metres, and on the ground, stood tall enough to look a fully-grown man in his fear-filled eyes.

A predator or scavenger (you bet it didn’t eat plants), there’s good news for larger would-be prey. Even at a stunningly light 155 lbs (remember, it’s about the size of a large hang glider), it had trouble getting off the ground, much less carrying off anything too large.

New research suggests this creature had such huge wings, it needed a pretty hefty wind to get aloft, rather than flapping its wings. 

Once in the air, though, it would have made for a perfect glider, and the bane of whatever was roaming the plains of Argentina six million years ago.

Here at The Weather Network, we often feature species that are at varying risk of extinction (we last looked at the American Chestnut). 

But when it comes to these guys, from the giant bug to the lurking super-croc, we don't think any rational person would miss them.

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