Abelisaurids were a group of theropod dinosaurs characterized by short snouts, bony ornamentation on their skulls, tiny stiff arms, and stocky legs. Known mostly from the southern continents of Gondwana, they were the dominant predators in these regions and are thought to have been specialized hunters of titanosaurian sauropods.
Rajasaurus narmadensis lived in what is now western India during the Late Cretaceous, about 67 million years ago. Around 7m long (23′), it had very rough-textured thickened bone on the top of its snout, along with a short rounded horn on its forehead that was probably used for display or headbutting behaviors.
India at this time was an isolated island continent located off the east coast of Africa, and Rajasaurus‘ ancestors probably island-hopped across from then-nearby Madagascar – where its closest known relative lived, the very similar-looking Majungasaurus.
(This is a couple of days late for Halloween, but since this October saw the description of a new dinosaur species with a particularly spooky name, I couldn’t resist putting it into the schedule anyway.)
Spectrovenator ragei was an early member of the abelisaurid lineage, living in southeastern Brazil during the Early Cretaceous, about 120 million years ago. It was one of the smallest known abelisaurids, measuring just 2m long (6’6″), and lacked a lot of the skull specializations seen in larger-bodied Late Cretaceous forms like Carnotaurus, suggesting it was more of a generalist predator.
Its genus name translates to “ghost hunter” due to it being found underneath the fossil remains of another dinosaur entirely – a “ghost” unexpectedly appearing when the specimen was being prepared – but it’s extra appropriate since it also helps to fill in a rather sizeable ghost lineage in the fossil record of abelisaurids.
For around 50 years some very unusual dinosaur tracks have been found in ancient desert sediments in South America: strange footprints showing the impression of only a single toe, a walking style never before seen in any reptiles.
And recently a fossil of what might be the track maker has actually been found.
Named Vespersaurus paranaensis, this new species lived during the Late Cretaceous of Brazil (~90 mya) and was a member of the noasaurid family of theropods, closely related to the weird-jawed Masiakasaurus from Madagascar.
Measuring about 1.5m long (~5′), Vespersaurus was fairly lightly built with legs proportioned for running – and its feet were absolutely unique. Although it had the standard three main toes of a theropod, it bore its weight entirely on the middle toe and held the other digits off the ground. The two raised toes on each foot also had large knife-like claws which may have been used during hunting, vaguely similar to the sickle claws on the feet of dromaeosaurs. But unlike dromaeosaurs these claws weren’t highly curved or pointed, suggesting Vespersaurus used more of a scratching and slashing technique rather than the raptors’ puncture-and-restraint strategy.
Much like ancient horses, it may have developed its single-toed stance as an adaptation for more efficient fast running, possibly to avoid larger predators or to chase down small fast-moving prey like hopping desert mammals.
The known one-toed fossil footprints are actually slightly older than the Vespersaurus fossil, and similar tracks in Argentina have been found dating back to the Late Jurassic (~150mya), so there may have been a long lineage of “one-toed” desert-dwelling noasaurids in South America that haven’t been found yet.
In the early 1970s an opalized dinosaur leg bone in a South Australian gem shop came to the attention of paleontologist Neville Pledge. The specimen’s owner allowed it to be borrowed and studied, and it was eventually named as Kakuru kujani – Kakuru after the Rainbow Serpent of Australian Aboriginal mythology, and kujani after a variant spelling of the Guyani, the local indigenous people. Later the fossil was auctioned off to another private owner and lost to science for nearly 30 years, until finally being acquired by the South Australian Museum in 2004.
But all we really know about Kakuru is that it was some sort of theropod dinosaur. The 33cm (1′) tibia probably belonged to an animal up to about 2m long (6′6″), living during the Early Cretaceous (~125-112 mya), but any placement in a specific group is almost impossible. Based on particular features of the bone – such as a tall and narrow astragalar process – it’s been proposed to be either an oviraptorosaur or an abelisaur. But more recent examinations have concluded the bone’s preservation is too poor for those features to be confidently identified, and consider Kakuru to be a basal coelurosaur or even just a dubious name for an indeterminate theropod.
It’s all a bit of a mess, really, and more and better material is needed to clear up this mysterious dinosaur’s identity.
I’ve restored Kakuru here in three different ways, to illustrate just how varied the interpretations are – on the left, an early oviraptorosaur; in the middle, a generic coelurosaur; and on the right, an abelisaur.
(Yes, the abelisaur is fluffy. South Australia was within the Antarctic Circle during the Early Cretaceous, and while the climate there wasn’t as cold as it is today it was still chilly enough for some floofy insulation to be useful.)