Ancient Angola Crocodile Ate Fish as Oil Fields Formed

Scientists have found a new type of crocodile that trundled across Angola millions of years ago while the crude oil that it now pumps as Africa’s second-largest producer was forming.

PaleoAngola, a team of fossil-hunters from the U.S., Portugal, Angola and the Netherlands, found the reptile’s 30 million-year-old remains this year on a beach within sight of oil rigs drilling into the same rocks offshore Cabinda province north of the Congo River.

“The croc is certainly new to the age in which it was found,” Louis Jacobs, geology and paleontology professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said in an e-mailed response to queries yesterday. “It would have been the size of a large modern croc, but two-thirds of the head would have been a narrow snout adapted for fish eating.”

Some of the 1.78 million barrels Angola pumped daily in July was formed around the same time as the crocodile fossil, after Africa and South America broke apart through plate tectonics. Oil explorers such as ConocoPhillips and BP Plc are betting on the industry’s Atlantic mirror theory which says there may be huge deposits of oil deep beneath the sea off West Africa, similar to those across the ocean in Brazil.

Resembles Gharial

The crocodile, which is yet to be named, may be related to a fossil found in the province almost 100 years ago and a more recent find in Kenya, Jacobs said. The beast was probably coastal and isn’t directly related to modern African crocodiles, he said. It resembled a gharial, but wasn’t one, he said. Gharials are a type of crocodile found in Asia.

The team also found a well-preserved skull of a 70 million-year-old mosasaur, sometimes called a marine monster, north of Luanda, the capital, and another in southern Namibe province with three smaller ones in its stomach.

“Quite a last meal,” Jacobs said.

Other finds this year include a tooth from an arsinoitherium, a rhino-like animal with two large horns forming a V off its nose that is known from digs in Egypt, and skulls of 18 million-year-old relatives of the pygmy right whale, which swims off Angola’s southern coast today, Jacobs said. They’re the continent’s only fossils of the oldest filter-feeding whales known from Africa, he said. One skull has two fish fossils in its blow hole.

Jacobs will report the finds to the Geological Society of America in October. Rock records in Angola, which is about twice the size of Texas, show how the continents formed, he said. Namibia to the south lacks such evidence while countries to the north are covered in vegetation.

Puzzle Pieces

“The icon of modern earth sciences is the puzzle-like fit of Africa and South America,” Jacobs said. “Angola is the story of Africa as a continent told through its rocks and no place else can say that.”

PaleoAngola is the first “boots-on-the-ground” scientific team to probe Angola since the acceptance of the plate tectonics concept in the early 1960s, Jacobs said. The entire coastline is fossil-bearing, he said.

Funding has come from Exxon Mobil Corp. and La Vida Foundation of Angola after support from the National Geographic Society and the American Chemical Society ran out, he said. AP Moeller-Maersk, Safmarine Inc. and Daam Holdings Co. help with shipping and new aid is welcome, he said.

The team has raised more than half of $750,000 needed for a National Geographic Society documentary and has spent $100,000 a year on site visits since digging up pieces of Angolatitan in 2005. The 13-meter (43-foot) plant eater, the OPEC member’s first dinosaur discovery, weighed the equivalent of about seven Toyota Corollas and roamed deserts 90 million years ago.

“The marine reptiles of Bentiaba, Namibe, have told more in a few years than 200 years of research in Europe have,” Jacobs said. “For their age, the fossils are the best in the world in terms of how many there are and how many different species occur together.”

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