spinosaurus-nat-geo

Spinosaurus: the first aquatic dinosaur?

Recently, the BBC documentary series “Planet Dinosaur” has premiered on TVE2. In this series the latest paleontological discoveries concerning the biology of dinosaurs are explained. On my last entry we talked about the theropod dinosaurs, one of which is the spinosaur, one of the largest predators that have ever existed. On this entry I’m going to explain some of the facts that paleontology has revealed about the lifestyle of this creature.

TAXONOMY

The spinosaur (scientific name Spinosaurus aegyptiacus) belonged to the Spinosauridae family, a group of specialized theropods which appeared during the late Jurassic and became extinct about 93 million years ago during the late Cretaceous. This group was characterized by being relatively large theropods, with conic teeth and long snouts similar to crocodiles, and elongated neural spines through its back forming a sail-like structure (that’s where the name Spinosauridae comes from, meaning spine reptiles).

Spinosauridscale
Comparition of the different sizes of various spinosaurids by Scott Hartman. From right to left: Irritator challengeri, Baryonyx walkeri, Suchomimus tenerensis and Spinosaurus aegyptiacus.

Some of the more famous members on this family are, the Baryonyx from Europe, which had long curved claws on its hands to capture the fish it fed on, similar to its close relative the Suchomimus from northern Africa. Furthermore, there was the smaller Irritator of about 3 metres tall found in Brasil and finally, the Spinosaurus from northern Africa, which measuring between 12 and 18 metres long and wheighing between 7 and 20 tons, was one of the biggest predators to ever walk on land.

HABITAT AND DISTRIBUTION

The genus Spinosaurus was distributed in the zone of what is now the north of Africa. This genus lived during the Cretaceous, appearing about 112 million years ago and disappearing about 97 million years ago.

94_mya_Texas_Geology
Map of the World 94 million years ago by Joshua Doubek, during the middle Cretaceous period.

During that period, the northern part of Africa was a very humid zone with high temperatures and lots of wetlands. Spinosaurs probably lived in areas with large rivers and mangrove forests next to the sea, where tidal movements flooded its habitat during certain seasons of the year. This is in accordance with the vision that spinosaurids preferred wet semiaquatic habitats with plenty of great fish to prey upon.

Spinosaurus1DBa
Reconstruction from 2010 of Spinosaurus aegyptiacus by Dmitry Bogdanov.

Currently there are two possible spinosaur species. The most famous is Spinosaurus aegyptiacus from Egypt, the species of which we have more information. A possible second species is Spinosaurus maroccanus from Morocco, which some authors consider simply as a subpopulation of Spinosaurus aegyptiacus.

FUNCTION OF NEURAL SPINES

Spinosaurs were discovered in 1912 from a fossil which included its characteristic dorsal spines. These spines grow up to a length ten times that of the vertebra from which they emerged.

The scarcity of spinosaur fossils means that the function of the spines is still a mystery for science, although there are some hypothesis. One of these is that the spines formed a “sail” along the back of the animal which was highly irrigated and helped the animal’s thermoregulation, as such a big animal probably would have had problems losing heat. Therefore its sail would have helped the spinosaur to evade overheating, orienting it towards fresh winds to cool down.

Subadult_Spinosaurus
Reconstruction of the skeleton of a subadult spinosaur (Japan Museum, photo by Kabacchi).

Another hypothesis tells us that the spines held a hump-like structure similar to that of camels, which the animal would have used as a fat reserve system to store fat to withstand periods with little available feeding resources.

Lots of paleontologists think that both hypothesis could be correct and that the spinosaur used the sail both to regulate its body temperature and also to store fat to resist periods of low prey abundance. It is also possible that the sail made the spinosaur appear bigger than it actually was and that they used it during mating rituals similar to those of the modern peacock.

FEEDING STRATEGIES

The Spinosaurus‘s skull shows adaptions to a piscivorous diet. The snout is longer and slender than on other theropods. Aside from this, observing the snout of Spinosaurus it has been seen that it presents a series of little holes similar to those found on crocodiles. It is thought that these structures indicate the presence of pressure receptors which helped them detect the movement of their preys underwater.

Spinosaurus
Upper jaw of Spinosaurus from the Museo di Storio Naturale di Milano, where the holes which possibly contained the pressure receptors can be seen.

While the teeth of most carnivorous theropods where curved and serrated on their posterior part to tear flesh, spinosaur teeth were conic in shape and had no serration, more similar to those of crocodiles. These teeth were more useful for catching and holding fast and slippery prey and to prevent them from escaping (for example, a fish). Also, various Spinosaurus fossils have been found to have between their theeth scales and bones of large prehistoric fish which probably populated many rivers during the Cretaceous period.

new_mawsonia_by_hyrotrioskjan-d5qjb39
Reconstruction by Joschua Knüppe of two Mawsonia species, the rests of which have been found between the teeth of Spinosaurus.

Nevertheless, it is generally believed that the spinosaur was probably an opportunistic predator, feeding mainly on fish, also hunting small dinosaurs when it had the opportunity and stealing prey from smaller predators using its great size to intimidate them.

POSTURE AND LIFESTYLE

Spinosaurs have traditionally been represented as bipedal animals, as most similarly-sized theropods have. Eventhough most fossils are actually pretty incomplete, it is known that its forelegs were more developed than in most theropods, having long curved claws.

Traditionally it was thought that Spinosaurus hunted in a manner similar to a grey heron, roaming through zones of shallow water, sinking its long snout underwater to detect prey using the pressure receptors, and catching fish with its jaws. It then, probably used its front legs as hands to tear its prey to small pieces easy to swallow.

spinosaurus_by_hyrotrioskjan-d5ate1h
Reconstruction by Joschua Knüppe of Spinosaurus aegyptiacus in hunting posture.

At the end of 2014 a new Spinosaurus fossil was discovered which has changed the view we had on this animal. For the first time, scientists found a fossil which shows the structure of the hind legs of this dinosaur and they have observed a number of characteristics not found in any other theropod not even in other spinosaurids. This fossil shows that the hind legs of Spinosaurus were much more massive than those of other theropod dinosaurs, in which the bones are usually hollow to make them more agile (like present day birds). Also, in this fossil the hind legs are actually much shorter in relation to the size of the animal than in any other theropod, leading some scientists to think that Spinosaurus was actually a quadrupedal animal. This has made some paleontologist think that maybe the lifestyle of the spinosaurs was much more similar to that of a crocodile and that they spent much more time living in water than on land, making the Spinosaurus the first known aquatic dinosaur.

spinosaurs_aegyptiacus_2014_by_rodrigo_vega-d7zj8yn
Reconstruction by Rodrigo Vega of Spinosaurus based on the skeleton found in 2014.

Anyway, many paleontologists argue that the biology of a species cannot be based on a single fossil and advise caution when generalizing to the whole species (the fossil could belong to an adult and a juvenile that died together or could even come from an individual which had suffered some kind of embryonic malformation that kept its legs from developing normally). Paleontology is a science in which with every new discovery we can unravel the tree of life and the evolution of the different groups of living beings. With a little of luck, future discoveries will enable us to clarify the anatomy of Spinosaurus aegyptiacus and define the lifestyle of such a unique and extraordinary reptile.

REFERENCES

The following sources have been consulted in the elaboration of this entry:

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