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Spinosaurus – The Largest Land Carnivore of All Time?

T. rex vs. 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 allowed paleontologists to learn a lot about these reptiles. When we visit schools or work in museums, our staff are bombarded with questions and one of the most popular is – what is the biggest, meat-eating dinosaur of them all? To be honest, this is a difficult question to answer, but among the candidates would be Spinosaurus (Spinosaurus aegyptiacus), a strange sail-backed dinosaur that may have grown to over 18 meters in length.

Spinosaurus appeared in the first episode of the BBC television series “Planet Dinosaur”. This episode was titled “Lost World” and focused on dinosaur discoveries from North Africa. This part of the world some ninety-five million years ago was home to a variety of huge prehistoric animals, giant crocodiles, enormous Sauropods and at least two oversized meat-eaters. The carnivores in question are Carcharodontosaurus and perhaps the biggest meat eater of all – Spinosaurus.

A Tale of the Tape

Just like two heavyweight boxing contenders, let’s briefly look at what we know about Spinosaurus compared 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, skull size 2 meters

Based on these statistics, it seems that Spinosaurus is the largest animal, but we have to consider the actual fossils, when a more confusing picture emerges.

There are about thirty T. rex fossils known, with at least half a dozen individual skeletons with at least 40% of the complete fossil material, including skull material. However, for Spinosaurus the fossil record is much less complete. Only six specimens have been found to date. Most of what paleontologists know about Spinosaurus comes from this scant material and the scaling of fossil bones from related genera such as Suchomimus, Baronyx, and Irritator.

The most complete Spinosaurus fossils found to date were discovered by a German expedition in the desert of Western Egypt. This expedition was headed by Ernst Stromer von Reichenbach, who should perhaps be as famous today as Cope and Marsh. However, Stromer was plagued by bad luck, and the story of the Spinosaurus is one of missed opportunities and mistakes.

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 (quite correctly as it turned out), that humanity originated in Africa. In the early 20th century there were two conflicting theories as to the origin of our species. Some scientists believed so H. sapiens evolved in Europe, while 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, what they believed to be Eocene deposits, a possible 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 those huge neural spines, the largest of which was nearly six feet tall. These spines are what give this dinosaur its name, the spines are thought 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) remains unclear. Still, Stromer knew he had some huge, petrified bones to contend with.

He was surprised by the size and scale of the samples collected by the expedition, he was quoted as saying “… I don’t know how to maintain such giant species.” The team ended up mixing flour and water to make a paste and tearing strips of cloth which they then soaked in this mixture and applied to the fossils to make a sort of protective jacket for their findings.

Returning the fossils 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 the end of the war. They did not finally return to Stromer until 1922.

Spinosaurus (Spinosaurus aegyptiacus) was officially 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 damaged fossils. Many of the specimens were in poor condition, and Stromer began spending the next decade or so repairing 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 found it increasingly difficult to publish his work.

April 24/April 25, 1944 – Fossils destroyed

Stromer had pleaded with authorities to remove the Spinosaurus fossil and other specimens from the Munich museum where they had been kept for much of World War II. As Allied bombing became more frequent, Stromer urged the authorities to let him move the samples to a safe storage location, such as a coal mine or other underground facility. His pleas went unheeded and his luck finally ran out on the night of 24 April, the morning of 25 April 1944, when a British night bombing raid virtually leveled the museum and the surrounding area. Stromer’s life’s work was destroyed, including the Spinosaurus fossils. Its holotype specimen no longer exists and is therefore not available for study. Only a few tantalizing photos 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 led scientists to describe a second possible species of Spinosaurus. Canadian paleontologist Dale Russell 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 a second species of Spinosaurus – Spinosaurus maroccansusalthough this second species is not fully accepted by the scientific community as a separate species.

In terms of confirming the size of Spinosaurus, based on the remaining fossils and the holotype from Bahariya Oasis, Egypt, we can say that this Theropod was very large, whether it is the largest land carnivore ever. it’s harder to say. Further research and more complete fossil specimens are needed.

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