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Spinosaurus – The Largest Land Carnivore of All Time?
T. rex versus Spinosaurus – Giant Killers
Scientists’ knowledge of dinosaurs has improved significantly over the past decade or so. New fossil finds combined with new research techniques have enabled paleontologists to learn a great deal about these reptiles. When we visit schools or work in museums, our staff are bombarded with questions, and one of the most popular is – which is the biggest, meat-eating dinosaur of them all? To be fair, this is a difficult question to answer, but among the contenders would be Spinosaurus (Spinosaurus aegyptiacus), a strange, sail-supported dinosaur that may have reached lengths of over 18 meters.
Spinosaurus featured in the first episode of the BBC TV series “Planet Dinosaur”. This episode was titled “Lost World” and focused on the dinosaur discoveries from North Africa. About ninety-five million years ago, this part of the world was home to a variety of huge prehistoric animals, giant crocodiles, huge sauropods, and at least two super-sized carnivores. The carnivores in question are Carcharodontosaurus and perhaps the biggest carnivore of them all – Spinosaurus.
A story about the tape
Like two heavyweight boxing competitors, let’s take a quick look at what we know about Spinosaurus in comparison to T. rex.
T. rex – length = 13-14 meters, weight 5.5 to 7 tons, skull size 1.75 meters
Spinosaurus – length 12-18 meters, weight 4 to 20 tons, size of the skull 2 meters
Based on these statistics, it appears that Spinosaurus is the larger animal, but we have to take into account the actual fossil evidence when making a more confusing picture.
Something like thirty T. rex fossil specimens are known, with at least half a dozen or so individual skeletons containing at least 40% of the complete fossil material, including cranial material. But for Spinosaurus, the fossil record is far less complete. To date, only six specimens have been found. Most of what paleontologists know about Spinosaurus comes from this sparse material and by scaling up the fossil bones of related genera such as Suchomimus, Baronyx, and Irritator.
The most complete Spinosaurus fossils found to date were discovered by a German-led expedition to the western Egyptian desert. This expedition was led by Ernst Stromer von Reichenbach, who should perhaps be as famous today as the likes of Cope and Marsh. However, Stromer was dogged by misfortune, and the story of Spinosaurus is one of missed opportunities and failures.
The Discovery of Spinosaurus
In November 1911, Stromer’s party set sail for Egypt, on a quest not to find dinosaurs, but to find evidence of early hominids. Stromer believed (rightly as it turned out) that mankind originated in Africa. In the early part of the 20th century, there were two conflicting theories about the origin of our own species. Some scientists believed it H. sapiens evolved in Europe, whereas other scientists, including Stromer, believed that humanity originated in Africa. Stromer’s party explored a number of areas before visiting the Bahariya Oasis in western Egypt for what they thought would be Eocene-aged deposits, a potential site for primate fossils. The team discovered the remains of several new types of dinosaurs, including two huge predators – Carcharodontosaurus and perhaps the most famous of all, Spinosaurus.
The remains were fragmentary, part of the lower jaw, some vertebrae, plus of course the enormous neural spines, the largest of which was nearly six feet tall. It is these spikes that give this dinosaur its name, the spikes are believed to have supported a huge sail-like structure on the animal’s back. Exactly what this device was used for (thermoregulation, fat storage, visual signaling) is still unclear. However, Stromer was aware that he had some huge, petrified bones to contend with.
He was surprised by the size and scope of the samples collected by the expedition, he was quoted as saying “… I don’t know how to preserve such gigantic species”. The team ended up mixing flour and water to make a paste and tearing strips of fabric, which they then soaked in this mixture and applied to the fossils to make a kind of protective jacket for their find.
Getting the fossils back to Germany proved very difficult. Egypt was under British control, and on the eve of the First World War, diplomatic relations between Britain and Germany were strained. One box was able to leave the country, but the rest remained in Egypt until after the war ended. They were not finally returned to Stromer until 1922.
Spinosaurus (Spinosaurus aegyptiacus) was formally named and scientifically described by Stromer in 1915. Stromer believed that this Egyptian dinosaur was at least as large as Tyrannosaurus rex, which had been named just nine years earlier.
Unfortunately, the boxes returned to Germany in 1922 contained fossils that had been damaged. Many of the samples were in bad shape, and Stromer set about spending the next decade or so repairing them and studying them. More descriptions, drawings and even some photographs of the Spinosaurus fossils were made, but by the 1930s Stromer fell out of favor with the Nazi Party and had more and more difficulty getting his work published.
April 24/25 April 1944 – Fossils destroyed
Stromer had asked authorities to remove his Spinosaurus fossil material and other specimens from the Munich museum, where they were kept for much of World War II. As the Allied bombing raids became more frequent, Stromer urged the authorities to let him transport the samples to a secure storage area such as a coal mine or other underground facility. His pleas went unheeded and his luck finally ran out on the evening of 24 April, the morning of 25 April 1944, when a British night bombing raid effectively flattened the museum and the surrounding area. Stromer’s life’s work was nearly destroyed, including the Spinosaurus fossils. His holotype specimen no longer exists and is therefore not available for study. Only a few intriguing photographs of Stromer’s Spinosaurus fossils remain.
Morocco – New discoveries
A number of other, fragmentary Spinosaurus fossils have been found since Stromer’s time. Not in Egypt, but in Morocco, this has led scientists to describe another potential Spinosaurus species. Canadian paleontologist Dale Russell has studied the Moroccan fossil material, some of which was provided by an Italian museum that had originally received this specimen from a private collection. Although still very fragmentary, scientists have named and described another species of Spinosaurus – Spinosaurus maroccansusalthough this second species is not fully accepted by the scientific community as being a separate species.
In terms of confirming the size of Spinosaurus, based on the fossil evidence that remains and on the holotype from the Bahariya Oasis in Egypt, we can state that this Theropod was very large, regardless of whether it is the largest carnivore on land , that ever existed. is harder to say. Further research and more complete fossil samples are needed.
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