April Fools 2022: The Aquatic Dinosaur That Wasn’t

So, Spinosaurus wasn’t technically the first known aquatic non-avian dinosaur.

That title instead temporarily went to Compsognathus corallestris.

While the idea that hadrosaurs and sauropods were wallowing swamp-dwellers had been completely abandoned at the start of the Dinosaur Renaissance, the new view of dinosaurs as active sophisticated animals led to a surprising aquatic hypothesis during the early days of this paleontological revolution.

A specimen of the small theropod Compsognathus discovered in southeastern France in the early 1970s was only the second skeleton ever found of this dinosaur, and came over a century after the first. It was initially thought to represent a new species since it was about 50% larger than the German specimen of Compsognathus longipes, and it seemed to have something very unusual going on with its hands – its forelimbs were somewhat poorly-preserved and distorted, and had traces of some sort of large fleshy structure around the hands that was interpreted as representing elongated three-fingered flippers used for swimming.

This wasn’t necessarily as ridiculous of an idea as it might sound. Compsognathus lived during the Late Jurassic, about 150 million years ago, at a time when Europe was a group of islands in a shallow tropical sea. A semiaquatic dinosaur specialized to swim and dive, hunting the abundant aquatic prey in its environment, and easily able to island-hop all around the European archipelago seemed at least somewhat plausible, and reconstructions of fin-handed C. corallestris even appeared in several popular dinosaur books of the time.

But it didn’t last.

Within just a few years doubt was being cast on this idea, and further studies of both known Compsognathus skeletons in the late 1970s and early 1980s concluded that C. corallestris was actually a fully-grown adult individual of the juvenile C. longipes. The French Compsognathus had normal-looking hands for its kind after all, with two large clawed fingers and a vestigial third finger, and the “flipper” impressions had just been ripples in the fossil slab.

For a long time after that the general view became that there just weren’t any aquatic non-avian dinosaurs at all – but more recent discoveries like the new Spinosaurus material and Halszkaraptor are starting to suggest that some of these animals were much more at home in the water than previously thought.

Something resembling Compsognathus corallestris might still surprise us in the future.

Vespersaurus

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.

Glowing Dinosaurs

Many modern birds are capable of seeing into the ultraviolet regions of the electromagnetic spectrum, and some of their non-avian dinosaur ancestors might have had the same sort of vision. And much like their living relatives, that means various parts of their bodies and plumage may also have been UV-reflective and UV-fluorescent.

So here’s a Velociraptor with some speculative UV coloration – although this is just what it would look like to human eyes under a blacklight. What it would actually look like to a creature that can see extra colors is impossible to depict on a screen designed for trichromatic vision!

Island Weirdness #08 – Balaur bondoc

When Balaur was described in 2010 it was initially thought to be a dromaesaurid closely related to Asian forms like Velociraptor. With its particularly stocky legs built for strength rather than speed, two-fingered hands, and two large sickle claws on each foot, it was interpreted as a weird highly specialized predator terrorizing the other Hațeg Island species at the end of the Cretaceous. Although only 1.8m long (5’10”), it was hypothesized to have taken down prey much larger than itself with powerful slashing kicks.

But later analyses cast doubt on this interpretation.

A lot of the anatomical features of Balaur’s skeleton were odd for a dromaeosaurid, but matched those of avialans – a group of close evolutionary “cousins” to the dromaeosaurids, containing Archaeopteryx and the common ancestors of all modern birds. And, by 2015, multiple studies had confirmed Balaur wasn’t really a “raptor” but instead a little further along on the bird lineage.

So now our picture of this dinosaur is very different: a chunky-bodied island bird, grown large and secondarily flightless sort of like a Cretaceous equivalent to the dodo. Its double sickle claws were probably adaptations for climbing and perching in trees, and based on similar avialans it was likely a herbivore rather than a hypercarnivore.

Qianzhousaurus

Qianzhousaurus sinensis, a tyrannosaur from the Late Cretaceous of southern China (~72-66 mya). Measuring about 9m long (29′6″) it had an unusually long and slender snout for a tyrannosaur, leading to its nickname of “Pinocchio rex”.

The only other known long-snouted tyrannosaur was the closely related Alioramus from Mongolia – but since only juveniles of that genus have been found so far, it’s also possible that Qianzhousaurus was actually just a fully-grown species of Alioramus.

Erlikosaurus

Erlikosaurus andrewsi, a therizinosaur from the Late Cretaceous of Mongolia (~90 mya).

Named after Erlik, the Turko-Mongolian god of death, it’s only known from partial remains – but it was the first therizinosaur ever found with a preserved skull, helping to fill in some of our knowledge of these oddball dinosaurs’ anatomy.

It was closely related to Therizinosaurus, but was only about half the size, estimated to have measured around 4-5m long (13′-16’4″). It would have had a toothless beak at the front of its jaws, an adaption for a herbivorous diet, along with long claws on its hands and a coat of fluffy down-like feathers. I’ve also given it some longer quill-like feathers here, similar to those known in Beipiaosaurus.