It Came From The Wastebasket #07: Carnosaur Carnage

Carnosauria was originally named in the 1920s as a grouping for all of the large-bodied theropod dinosaurs known at the time.

For much of the 20th century it was used as a general wastebasket taxon collecting together all big carnivorous forms – including allosaurids, carcharodontosaurids, megalosaurids, spinosaurids, ceratosaurids, abelisauroids, and tyrannosaurids – and for a while it even included a species that later turned out to be closer related to crocodiles than to dinosaurs.

An illustration showing four different carnosaurs: Asfaltovenator, Torvosaurus, Giganotosaurus, and Baryonyx. They're all bipedal carnivorous dinosaurs with small three-clawed arms, bird-like legs, and long counterbalancing tails, but they vary in size, coloration, and most notably head shape. Asfaltovenator and Giganotosaurus have fairly typical boxy theropod heads, while Torvosaurus has a longer snout and Baryonyx has slender crocodile-like jaws.
From left to right: Asfaltovenator vialidadi, Torvosaurus tanneri, Giganotosaurus carolinii, & Baryonyx walkeri

But then cladistic analysis in the 1980s and 1990s revealed that some of these theropods weren’t actually closely related at all. Carnosaurs weren’t a natural lineage but instead were highly polyphyletic, with the physical similarities between them seeming to be more due to convergent evolution than direct shared ancestry.

Some carnosaurs were split off and reclassified as more “primitive” types of theropod, while the tyrannosaurs were placed much closer to birds with the coelurosaurs. The remaining “carnosaurs” were just the allosaurids, carcharodontosaurs, and their closest relatives, and some paleontologists now prefer to use the name Allosauroidea for this group to distance it from the previous wastebasket mess.

…But Carnosauria might not be done just yet.

A screenshot from "Phineas and Ferb", with the two main characters in a room lit up by an offscreen disco ball, with one grabbing the arm of the other. Text below them reads "Dude, we're getting the band back together!" Both of their heads have been photoshopped into those of Megalosaurus and Asfaltovenator.

The discovery of Asfaltovenator in 2019 complicated matters once again, with a mixture of anatomical features linking it to both the allosauroids and the megalosauroids (megalosaurids, spinosaurids, and their relatives) – suggesting that these two groups might actually have been closely related to each other in a single lineage after all.

This would potentially return Carnosauria back to something surprisingly close to its original definition, with the various megalosauroids now forming an evolutionary grade leading to the allosauroids.

Retro vs Modern #23: Spinosaurus aegyptiacus

Spinosaurid teeth were first found in the 1820s in England, but were misidentified as belonging to crocodilians. It wasn’t until nearly a century later that Spinosaurus aegyptiacus was discovered and recognized as a dinosaur – and it would be another century after that before we really started to learn anything about it.


1910s

The first fossils of Spinosaurus were discovered in Egypt in the 1910s. With only a few fragments of its skeleton known it was an enigma right from the start, hinting at a large and very strange theropod dinosaur with crocodile-like teeth, an oddly-shaped lower jaw, and elongated neural spines on its vertebrae that seemed to be part of a huge sail.

A few possible extra fragments were found in the 1930s, but overall these few pieces were all that was known of Spinosaurus for a long time.

The fossils were kept in the Paleontological Museum in Munich, Germany,a building that was severely damaged during a bombing raid in World War II. Many important specimens were destroyed, including Spinosaurus, and only the published drawings and descriptions of the bones remained.

So for the next several decades Spinosaurus remained a very poorly-understood mystery. During this period it was generally depicted as a generic “carnosaur“, often modeled on something like Megalosaurus, in the standard-for-the-time tripod pose and with a Dimetrodon-like sail on its back.

Interestingly a 1930s skeletal reconstruction shows Spinosaurus with an unusually long torso and fairly short legs, details that are surprisingly modern despite the retro posture.


1990s

In the 1980s some partial snout bones from Niger were recognized as having similarities with the jaw of Spinosaurus. Around the same time the fairly complete skeleton of Baryonyx was discovered, and along with further spinosaurid discoveries in the mid-to-late 1990s a decent idea of what Spinosaurus might have looked like began to emerge.

It was reconstructed with a long kinked crocodilian-like snout, a ridged bony crest in front of its eyes, an S-curved neck, and large thumb claws on its hands – an interpretation that was heavily popularized by Jurassic Park III in the early 2000s, bringing this enigmatic dinosaur to public attention and portraying it as a fearsome super-predator bigger than Tyrannosaurus.


2020s

Despite attempts to locate more complete Spinosaurus remains, only fragments continued to be found, and it remained a frustratingly poorly-known species even into the early 2010s.

Finally, in 2014, almost a full century after it was first described and named, Spinosaurus started to reveal its secrets with the announcement of the discovery of the most complete skeleton so far, discovered in the Kem Kem fossil beds in Morocco. Its body was still only partially represented, but it included skull fragments, part of a hand, a complete leg and pelvis, some sail spines, and several vertebrae from the neck, back, and tail.

And nobody was expecting what these pieces revealed.

It had a very long torso and proportionally short stumpy legs, and was reconstructed with a huge distinctive “M-shaped” sail on its back. Its feet had flat-bottomed claws and its “dewclaw” toe was enlarged into an extra weight-bearing digit – adaptations for spreading its weight over soft muddy ground, and suggesting its feet may also have been webbed. Initially it was also presented as possibly being quadrupedal, due to how far forward its center of mass seemed to be, reviving an odd idea from the late 20th century.

Along with its long crocodile-like head and conical teeth, this was interpreted as evidence it was a semiaquatic fish-eating swimming animal – potentially making it the first known semiaquatic non-avian dinosaur. Spinosaurids had been suggested to be specialized piscivores before, especially since Baryonyx had been found with fish scales in its stomach, but they were generally assumed to be more like modern grizzly bears, wading into water to hunt but not being habitual swimmers. Spinosaurus’ weird croco-duck proportions, however, seemed like they might be much more suited to watery habitats than to the land.

Since Spinosaurus had become a popular dinosaur with the general public by that point, the discovery was big news – and a big controversy for a while. It was so bizarre that some paleontologists were skeptical of the radical new interpretation, wondering if the measurements of the skeleton were correct or if the short legs were even from the same individual or the same species as the rest of the bones.

After a while the new proportions were accepted as fairly accurate, and over the next few years attention turned to instead figuring out just how this animal worked and how aquatic it actually was. An earlier isotope analysis of its teeth supported a semiaquatic lifestyle similar to crocodiles and turtles, but a buoyancy study argued that it might not have been able to dive below the water suface and its sail made floating unstable – but also found that its center of mass was closer to its hips than previously calculated, suggesting it could walk bipedally after all.

Then in 2020 came another surprise: more of the tail of the new specimen had been found, and it was just as weird as the rest of Spinosaurus. Its tail was a huge vertically flattened paddle-like fin supported by long thin neural spines and chevrons, resembling a giant eel or newt more than a dinosaur and also giving some more weight to the idea that it was a swimmer.

Our modern view of Spinosaurus is still evolving, and likely to be full of even more surprises in the future as we discover more about this unique dinosaur. But we at least know it lived in what is now North Africa during the Late Cretaceous, about 99-93 million years ago, and whether it was a swimmer or wading generalist predator it was one of the largest known theropods to ever live, estimated to have reached around 16m long (~52ft).

While the “M-shaped” sail reconstruction has been popularized by the recent discoveries, the exact shape of this structure is still unknown. Like with other sailbacked animals it’s also not clear what it was for, with ideas including temperature regulation, visual display, supporting a fatty hump, and a potential hydrodynamic adaptation.

EDIT: And while I was working on this entry (late March 2022) I missed that another study had just come out with more anatomical support for swimming Spinosaurus!

Retro vs Modern #01: Megalosaurus bucklandii

It’s time for Retro vs Modern Month!

Every weekday this March we’ll be looking at some examples of how our paleontological understanding and visual depiction of various fossil creatures has evolved over the years.

Starting with…

Retro vs Modern #01: Megalosaurus bucklandii

Fragmentary fossil remains of dinosaurs have been found in Southeast England for hundreds of years, but it wasn’t until the 1820s that they were properly recognized as belonging to an ancient “great lizard” given the name Megalosaurus bucklandii – the very first non-avian dinosaur known to science, almost two decades before the term “dinosaur” would even be created to categorize these extinct animals.


1850s

The Victorian Crystal Palace reconstruction of Megalosaurus is often mocked for its inaccurate bulky appearance, but for its time it was actually an incredibly progressive vision of a predatory dinosaur. It was depicted as an alert, active, bear-like beast with upright muscular limbs, and a humped back based on what later turned out to actually be remains of a different dinosaur species.


1890s-1960s

Discoveries of other large theropod dinosaurs revealed their bipedal posture, and Megalosaurus reconstructions were revised to show an upright kangaroo-like stance. But despite some other early portrayals of active agile dinosaurs, the overall opinion of these animals began to drift during the first half of the 20th century towards sluggish tail-dragging reptiles: depicting them as slow, stupid, cold-blooded, awkward and obsolete evolutionary failures whose extinction had been inevitable.


2020s

Starting in the late 1960s the Dinosaur Renaissance finally began to shift thinking back towards active and warm-blooded dinosaurs, recognizing theropods’ close evolutionary relationship to modern birds and correcting their posture into a horizontal stance with a counterbalancing tail. And while Megalosaurus itself is still only known from fragments, discoveries of more completely preserved relatives like Torvosaurus have given us a much better idea of what it was probably like.

We know know Megalosaurus lived on what at the time was a subtropical island in the shallow western Tethys Sea, about 166 million years ago during the Mid Jurassic. It would have been around 8m long (~26′), with a long narrow snout, and short muscular arms with enlarged meathook-like thumb claws. Its legs and tail would have been fairly thick and bulky, and it may have had a covering of hair-like protofeathers on its body.