Fastest Dinosaur in the World Found

You might have been able to outrun a T. rex, but not the theropod that left its tracks in Cretaceous Spain

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Four types of spinosaurs
Types of spinosaurs, some of whom may have been able to run very fastCredit: Andrey Belov, Wikimedia Commons
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Could you outrun a T. rex? Possibly, if you’re fit and if the biomechanical analysis of its locomotion is correct. But there was a dinosaur in Cretaceous Spain that could have run you into the ground, eaten you for dinner and flossed its fangs with your hair, even if you’re the second coming of Usain Bolt.

Bolt is presently the fastest known human being on the planet, having achieved a record speed of 44.72 kilometers per hour (27.8 miles per hour). 

Paleontologists have deduced that the two-legged beast could achieve a speed of 45 kilometers per hour. 

The report was published Thursday in Nature Scientific Reports

One of the footprints. Scale bar = 10 centimetersCredit: Pablo Navarro-Lorbs

Their speed estimate is based on fossil pawprints found at La Rioja,  a region better known for wines than lizardry. This is the fastest speed ever estimated for a dinosaur, so far, though it bears qualifying that it’s all theoretical: there are no animals extant today that move like dinosaurs did. Not even birds, though they descended from dinosaurs, but their tails and posture have become different, the authors explain.

Actually, the rex – ostensible king of lizard tyrants – couldn’t run at all in adulthood, according to a biomechanical analysis published in PeerJ; at best it could produce a brisk walk of up to 19 kilometers per hour. The cheetah of the Cretaceous, it wasn’t, though likely infant and teenage rexes could zip along. So much for the cheesy movies showing T. rex running down terrified time travelers.

“We can tell that adult T. rex individuals couldn’t run very fast because of limitations in size. When an animal reach weights like an adult T. rex, the muscular performance becomes more and more exigent and impedes them from running very fast,” says lead author Pablo Navarro-Lorbés. “Some studies have compared the running abilities of young and adult T. rex, and have proposed that younger individuals could run faster than adults, maybe leading to different hunting strategies and focus on different preys as they grew up.”

Yet based on the three-toed footsteps, which are about a foot long, found in the Lower Cretaceous Enciso Group of Igea, La Rioja, the speedy one was a medium-sized bipedal theropod living 145 million to 100 million years ago, the Early Cretaceous. Not that you’d know which animal to avoid if you time-traveled, because we don’t know exactly which one it was.

Giganotosaurus, one of the larger shark-toothed dinosaurs, and youCredit: Durbed, Wikimedia Commons

Let us be clear that they cannot nail down precisely how fast the animal ran, and there are some other speedy ones in paleontological lore. But they could deduce a range.

One theropod was proceeding at 6.5 to 10.3 meters per second. The other one outdid it at 8.8 to 12.4 meters per second. Bolt achieved 10.44 meters per second in one race.

The average human can run at 5 meters per second. We would have been toast. Cheetahs, on the other hand, could have fed it dust, being briefly capable of running at 36 meters per second. (That is the maximum known speed; normally they don’t advance quite that fast.)

The researchers describe the pawprints and the method of the speed analysis in exhausting detail, but what inquiring minds really want to know is: which theropods were they?

Carcharodontosaurus skull, showing its impressive teethCredit: Franko Fonseca, Wikimedia Commons
Reconstruction of an indeterminate theropod running on sediment at low waterCredit: Pablo Navarro-Lorbs.

We can’t know for sure, but based on the known theropod population of Cretaceous Spain, the paleontologists suspect the speedsters may have been carcharodontosaurids or spinosaurids.

“Carcharodontosaurids are a family of theropods that include a great variety of species with different sizes, from very big animals to smaller ones. The theropods that made our tracks are medium sized theropods 1.5 to 2 meters tall and 4 to 5 meters long,” Navarro-Lorbés explains.

Unencouragingly for the time-traveling set, carcharodontosaurids are also known as “shark-toothed dinosaurs” and frankly, to the layperson, they don’t look that different from T. rexes and the big ones would have made the T. rex look puny.

The biggest carcharodontosaurids could be as much as 14 meters long and the smaller ones still ran a good six meters in length. Spinosaurids were also hefty and looked like a T. rex with a crocodilian head. All these are among the tetanurans, a clade that includes birds.

The location of two sets of dinosaur tracks, now identified as a medium-sized theropod Credit: Alberto Labrador

So if the T. rex couldn’t run in adulthood and these creatures clearly could, one may imagine they were either a medium-sized species or young ones.

Dinosaurs began to evolve, the fossil record indicates, about 250 million years ago. It seems they began to rise with the advent of the Triassic, after the Permian mass extinction 252 million years ago. The shark-toothed carcharodontosaurids are believed to have arisen much later, possibly around 127 million years ago; the T. rex arose even later, perhaps around 68 million years ago.

The bottom line is that the group of carcharodontosaurids and spinosaurids includes some of the biggest predators the planet has known, but they seem to have died out before the Turonian, a stage in the late Cretaceous – before the rise of the tyrannosaurs. Which is just as well for the tyrannosaurs, as going by present research, they couldn’t have outrun these monsters either.

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