Four specimens of a new crocodilian species that were unearthed in the Cerrejon coal mines of northern Colombia now have a name: Athracosuchus balrogus, inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s subterranean beast Balrog.
A. balrogus is the third new species of croc found in the Cerrejon mines, apparently a repository for fossils of scary species. The same mines have also yielded remains of the 58-ft long Titanoboa and turtles with super-thick shells. And some sections of those turtle shells unearthed near A. balrogus show scratches and dents which may have been administered by the ancient crocs’ teeth.
It is thought that A. balrogus originated in Africa and then swam across the Atlantic Ocean to invade freshwater environments of South America about 75 millions years ago. 10 millions years later, the animals somehow managed to survive the massive extinction event that nixed the dinosaurs.
“This group offers clues as to how animals survive extinctions and other catastrophes,” study co-author Alex Hastings told LiveScience. Hastings is a postdoctoral researcher at Martin Luther Universität Halle-Wittenberg.” As we face climates that are warmer today, it is important to understand how animals responded in the past. This family of crocodyliforms in Cerrejón adapted and did very well despite incredible obstacles, which could speak to the ability of living crocodiles to adapt and overcome.”
The name of Athracosuchus balrogus has an interesting story too. “Athraco” means coal, a nod to the mine theses specimens were found in, and “suchus” means crocodile. The specific name (second part of an animal’s scientific name according to binomial nomenclature) of A. balrogus is a reference to Tolkien’s balrog, a similarly terrifying beast also found deep below the surface of the earth–or middle earth, as the case may be.
We tend to think of ancient versions of today’s animals as being invariably more massive (see: dire wolves) but that isn’t the case with A. balrogus. Researchers have put these new crocs at 16-feet long and 900 pounds, which is actually on the lower end of length and weight for adult saltwater crocodiles, Crocodylus porosus (cover photo). Salt water crocodiles can grow to 23 feet and weigh as much as 2,200 lbs. For a croc that makes even “salties” look small, check out Sarcosuchus imperator, the “super croc” from the Cretaceous that’s believed to have weighed 20,000 pounds and be 40-feet long.