Six-meter-long reptile lurking in the waters of southern China: Researchers have identified a previously unknown type of crocodile that appears to have been exterminated by humans over the past 3,000 years. This is evidenced by the study of animal remains from the Bronze Age, as well as from historical records. Traces on one of the specimens indicate that it was ritually decapitated. The newly discovered species also sheds light on the evolutionary history of the gavial crocodile family, the researchers said.
Prehistoric creatures with sharp teeth: there was a great diversity among the representatives of crocodiles (Crocodylia), as is known from fossil finds. Today, only 25 species of crocodiles lurk in the water in different parts of the world for prey. They were divided into three families: the so-called real crocodiles, crocodiles and gavials. The latter includes only two species – Ganges Gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) and Sundagarial (Tomistoma schlegelii), which occur in the south of the Malay Peninsula, as well as in Borneo and Sumatra. It was assumed, however, that the Sungavial range, which could reach five meters in length, could extend as far as southern China.
Special Representative from Gavial
In fact, there appears to be a separate species of previously unknown large crocodile, as shown by the study led by researchers led by Masaya Ijima of Japan’s Nagoya University. The results are based on the examination of remains found at various sites in south China’s Guangdong Province. They cover much of the reptile’s skeleton. Investigations focused particularly on two well-preserved specimens.
As the researchers reported, their analyzes showed that it was a previously unknown species of the gavial group, which reached six meters in length. The animal had a relatively slender nose, as is usual in this family. They named the new representative Hanyusuchus sinensis. “The exciting thing is that the species also shares some important skull features with the rest of the crocodiles,” Iijima says. “This is of great importance, as the discovery could shed light on the previously unclear question of how, when and how crocodiles evolved into the three families that still live on Earth today,” says the scientist.
A decapitated ritual?
But there’s also another exciting element: Radiocarbon dating and bone analysis showed that the two specimens lived about 3,000 years ago – and seemed to have only become extinct at the hands of humans. The researchers reported that the remains show several signs of intrusion. An animal may have been deliberately decapitated with a bronze blade. They see the use of this special tool as an indication that “decapitation” can occur as part of a ritual. For their study, scholars also conducted extensive research into historical records. As they reported, they came across several pointers that could refer to Hanyusuchus and not to the Chinese alligator (Alligator sinensis), which still exists today and is only about two meters long.
In particular, scholars highlight a story from the 9th century AD. It also formed the basis for naming the species Hanyusuchus, after the government official Han Yu. The novel tells of a crocodile problem that plagues the people of a river delta in Guangdong Province. It is said that reptiles used to eat livestock there and attack humans as well. It is said that Han Yu ritually warned the crocodiles and asked them to leave the area. It is said that he sacrificed a pig and a goat. Since the warning may have been unsuccessful, it can be assumed that the animals were chased. However, as evidenced by the results on samples over 1,000 years old, this was also common before.
Biological and historical significance
“Given that the two specimens we killed by humans, the species no longer exists, and there is historical evidence of the systematic eradication of crocodiles in the area, it is reasonable to conclude that humans were responsible for the disappearance of Hanyusuchus sinensis.” , says co-author Minoru Yoneda of the University of Tokyo. Exactly when the last animals disappeared is not clear – according to indications, the species could have existed even a few hundred years. “It is also possible that these animals left cultural imprints in ancient Chinese civilization,” Yoneda says. “Maybe even the legends about dragons have been influenced by him. Because he could have been the only reptile in ancient China that also ate humans,” says the scientist.
The University of Tokyo concludes that Hanyusuchus sinensis will continue to be in the interest of researchers because of its importance in the development of crocodiles: They are currently trying to extract genetic material from the remains. If that works, the comparisons can show exactly how the animal is classified in the crocodile family tree.
Source: University of Tokyo, professional article: Proceedings of the Royal Society B, doi: 10.1098/rspb.2022.0085
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