Dinosaur Predator Bigger Than T-rex Found - and It Hunted in Water

The biggest-known dinosaur predator to stalk the planet earth looked rather like a monster daschund, but with 7-meter tall spines on its back.

Ruth Schuster
Will Dunham
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Imagine that in your bathtub: Spinosaurus had been discovered before, but its true water-loving nature is only now coming to light.
Imagine that in your bathtub: Spinosaurus had been discovered before, but its true water-loving nature is only now coming to light. Credit: Reuters
Ruth Schuster
Will Dunham

A meat-eating dinosaur bigger than T-Rex, with 7-foot spines on its back, has been uncovered in the desert cliffs in the Sahara – which was a seabed back then. Spinosaurus aegyptiacus is not only the biggest dinosaur predator know to date; it's also the first known swimmer among the meat-eating pack, paleontologists say.

On Thursday scientists announced the discovery of new fossil remains in Moroccan the desert cliffs of Morocco. Although the species had first been noticed nearly a century ago, these remains were in far better condition and have changed the paradigm for how dinosaur predators looked and behaved.

At 15 meters, roughly 2.5 meters longer than your average Tyrannosaurus rex, Spinosaurus also is the only known real dinosaur adapted for a water-loving, semi-aquatic lifestyle, the study found.

Other marine predators you're probably thinking about, such as plesiosauruses, were reptiles, not dinosaurs.

Living 95 million years ago during the Cretaceous, Spinosaurus was also the only known four-footed dinosaur predator. Its peers, like T. rex, Allosaurus and Giganotosaurus, stood upright on their hind legs.

This monster on the other hand walked on four short legs rather like a monster daschund. It had a front-heavy build, a flexible tail and flat hind feet that, the paleontologists postulate, may have been webbed and used for paddling. Its elongated jaws and conical teeth were perfect for snaring slippery fish, the scientists say.

Its back was topped with a sail-like structure of bony spines 7 feet tall, connected by skin. That spiny rack would have stuck out of the water as Spinosaurus waded and swam after prey, presumably sharks, car-size fish and crocodilians, which it could snare with its sickle-like claws.

A bomb blows up the remains

"The animal is unlike any other predatory dinosaur. There's no blueprint for it. There's no modern-day equivalent for it. It's looking at a completely new kind of animal," said University of Chicago paleontologist Nizar Ibrahim, who led the study published in the journal Science.

Spinosaurus terrorized a vast North African river system from Morocco to Egypt. It may not have been agile on land, Ibrahim said, but could have taken down other dinosaurs too.

Spinosaurus's existence has been known for a century since fragmentary remains were found in Egypt by German paleontologist Ernst Stromer. But those were destroyed in a British bombing raid on Munich in 1944. Other partial remains offered mere glimpses of its anatomy.

Nonetheless, the legend of Spinosaurus had begun. It was featured in the 2001 movie "Jurassic Park III" vanquishing a T. rex.

'Mystery man with mustache'

Everything changed when a local fossil hunter unearthed a partial skeleton in southeastern Morocco in 2008 near the Sahara oasis town of Erfoud. Combined with fossils held in various museums and drawings of Stromer's finds, an accurate reconstruction of Spinosaurus finally evolved.

But nothing was simple. The remains found by the fossil hunter were spirited out of Morocco, depriving scientists of vital information.

They needed to locate the hunter but did not know his identity beyond being "the mystery man with the mustache." He was finally found in 2013 and led the scientists to the excavation site.

More fossils were dug up there and the missing partial skeleton turned up in the basement of a Milan museum.

Using CT scans to study the structure of the bones, the researchers created a digital skeleton model and fashioned a life-size 3-D skeleton replica now displayed at Washington's National Geographic Museum.

Ibrahim described Spinosaurus's environment as "the most dangerous place in the history of our planet."

It was the king of waterways teeming with sharks and 36-foot crocodilians, Ibrahim said. Flying reptiles with wingspans of 23 feet soared overhead. On land, the 40-foot dinosaur predator Carcharodontosaurus was on the prowl.

Its fossils revealed unmistakable adaptations for life mostly in the water. Its unusual body plan including a relatively small pelvis and short hind legs resembles mammalian whale ancestors that appeared 45 million years later.

Small nostrils on the middle of the skull enabled it to breathe when part of the head was submerged, the scientists said. Dense bones lacking marrow cavities of other predatory dinosaurs helped control buoyancy. Powerful, long-boned feet with long, flat claws were probably used for paddling. Its flexible tail could have been used for swimming like in a crocodile.

Note the short legs and spiky "sail" of the aptly-named Spinosaurus, which looked oddly like a spiky, marine daschund.Credit: Reuters

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