Huge, flightless, and carnivorous, the phorusrhacids (or terror birds) were some of the largest apex predators in South America during its Cenozoic “splendid isolation” as an island continent – and they were possibly the closest that birds ever came to reclaiming the ecological roles of their extinct non-avian theropod dinosaur relatives.
And for a while in the late 1990s and early 2000s there was a hypothesis that they’d even re-evolved clawed hands.
This idea was based on the wing bones of Titanis walleri, the only terror bird known to have dispersed northwards during the Great American Biotic Interchange when North and South America became connected via the Isthmus of Panama.
Living during the Pliocene and Pleistocene in Florida and Texas, between about 5 and 1.8 million years ago, Titanis stood around 1.5-1.8m tall (~5-6′) and was heavily built, with long strong legs and a massive hooked beak. Remains of its small wings were incomplete and fragmentary but had seemingly unusual joints, with what looked like a stiffer wrist and more flexible “fingers” than other birds, which led paleontologist Robert Chandler to propose in 1994 that this terror bird species had modified its wings into clawed grasping arms similar to those of dromaeosaurs, used to restrain prey animals while its beak tore them apart.
But the idea of a giant murder-bird with added meathook-hands only lasted about a decade. Further investigation in 2005 showed that Titanis‘ arms weren’t that weird after all – the same sort of joints are found in terror birds’ closest living relatives, the seriemas, and so Titanis really had the same sort of small vestigial wings as many other large flightless birds.
…However, there still could have been some claws on there. Many modern birds actually have one or two small claws on their hands that aren’t visible under their feathers, and terror birds like Titanis having something like that going on is completely plausible – they just wouldn’t have been using them for any sort of specalized predatory function.
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.