Giant Crocodile-Like Creature Was Driven to Extinction by Humans in China 200 Years Ago

An enormous, long lost species of crocodile that appears to have been wiped out by humans as little as 200 years ago has been discovered in China.

Scientists estimate this extinct species grew to around 20 feet in length and was hunted by Bronze Age Chinese as a result of conflict with humans.

Researchers announced the discovery in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. They showed proof for an entirely new species with various strange characteristics based on two specimens dating to between 1400 and 1000 BC.

There are three main groups of crocodilians—crocodiles, alligators and a group known as Gavialidae that have long, thin snouts. The new species was a member of the latter group, having a long, narrow snout like Indian and Malayan river crocodiles. The scientists described its features as "bizarre."

More than 12 chop marks were found on the skull of one of the specimens found in the river systems of southern China. "The purpose of chopping the skull, particularly around the eye and area surrounding the brain, would be for taking down this individual," lead author Masaya Ijima from the Department of Biological Sciences at Clemson University, South Carolina, told Newsweek.

"Bisecting the neck vertebra would be most likely for beheading that individual."

Skeleton and artist restoration of Hanyusuchus
Skeleton and artist restoration of Hanyusuchus. The animal was likely wiped out by humans several centuries ago. Hikaru Amemiya

The Bronze Age was named because of the expansion of metal working using the metal in various regions including China. The authors said bronze weapons like axes were considered a status symbol in China at the time and could also have been used to decapitate the crocodiles.

Ijima said there is direct evidence of human-crocodilian conflict in Bronze Age China, including examples from historical literature. These include texts dating from the early first millennium to the mid second millennium CE.

The study said that in one case, government officials resorted to sacrificial rituals in the Han River valley. "The ancient Cantonese hatred of crocodilians had lasted for at least three millennia since the Shang dynasty," the study said.

"According to 10th century literature, a government official sent 100 soldiers to the Han River delta in Guangdong province, caught the problem crocodilian that ate a boy, and killed it in the public," Ijima said.

Along with human conflict, researchers said habitat loss and the encroaching of manmade agriculture and settlements eventually drove the species to extinction.

Researchers say the new species may represent a missing link in crocodilian evolution, showing characteristics of both Indian and Malayan gharials. This bridged a gap in the Gavialidae family tree that had previously puzzled scientists studying the animals.

Ijima also said the discovery could help conservation efforts for extant crocodilian species: "Crocodilians are top-predators and play a pivotal role in the maintenance of the freshwater ecosystem. At the same time, it is true that some of the modern crocodilians are only reptiles that routinely consume humans.

"We would ask to keep balance between conservation of endangered species and management of human-crocodile conflict in the future."

Stock image of a Gharial crocodile
Stock image of a Gharial crocodile in India. The study found a new species of crocodile that went extinction within the last few years that showed characteristics like that of the Indian Gharial. RichLindie/Getty Images