Spinosaurus sails on

Spinosaurus stormed into the public imagination when it was witnessed scrapping with T. rex in the wildlife documentary known as Jurassic Park III. It’s popularity subsequently boomed, as frankly, it is a totally bizarre dinosaur. It’s back is adorned with a large sail, it had long clawed arms for grappling, and a snout that resembles a crocodile more than a dinosaur, elongated and full of teeth for snatching up prey.

Last year, Spinosaurus hit the public eye again, based on new research showing that this dinosaur was an efficient swimmer, dwelling in the lakes and rivers of the Cretaceous of North Africa, where it would ambush unsuspecting fish (and any careless dinos!). Interestingly, reconstructions showed it as a knuckle-walking quadruped, with teeny tiny legs and a body longer than that of T. rex. The original article is totally paywalled here.

Image: Brian Engh
Image: Brian Engh

However, there was a huge amount of controversy over the study, largely revolving around the reconstruction of Spinosaurus – it couldn’t be demonstrated that a composite skeleton comprised the same single animal, the same age of animal (important for size estimates), the same species or even family of dinosaur! For a research study that got worldwide press coverage (including its own TV show!), you’d think that such pretty hefty issues would be ironed out before publication to avoid the possibility of any scientific miscommunication. You’d think..

As with all scientific controversies though, the big steps come in the form of published papers as opposed to coffee table discussions (rants). Led by a colleague and good friend of mine, Serjoscha Evers, an international team have published the latest in the ‘Spinosaurus Saga’, based on Evers’ undergraduate research! The research is freely available in PeerJ, but is a pretty technical anatomical discussion of the morphology and taxonomy of large-bodied Cretaceous theropod dinosaurs from North Africa. Other experts have already written great summaries of the paper (Mark Witton and Jaime Headden), so I won’t go into too much detail here, except for the following key points:

  • The theropod Sigilmassasaurus is a distinct taxon from Spinosaurus, and the two should not have been combined previously. They are pretty similar though, both belonging to the group Spinosauridae.
  • There might even be a second spinosaurid taxon known from the ‘Kem Kem’ bids of the ‘middle’ Cretaceous of Morocco. Spinosaurus was originally known from Egypt.
  • The specimens referred to Spinosaurus by the Ibrahim et al. study probably cannot be referred to this animal.
  • Therefore, Spinosaurus as reconstructed in 2014 is probably a composite of at least two different theropod species, including specimens that have an under-appreciated taxonomic significance.
  • The ‘Spinosaurus‘ material collected from Morocco probably was collected from a bone bed comprising fragmentary remains of numerous dinosaur species, and considering them to represent one single animal is over-interpreting the evidence. The specimens might not have even come from the same place – it’s difficult to tell due to a lack of documentation regarding their origins and collecting histories.
  • Instead of Spinosaurus being well-known, as the Science study would suggest, we actually know very little about this animal.

That’s about the crux of it.

What I want to add though as a personal touch is how this study represents a missed opportunity from the media. While they jumped on the study from last year with gusto, and basically took the research at face value to create a sort of ‘media storm’ around Spinosaurus, they have been completely absent in following up on the story. With this, they have missed the opportunity to communicate more broadly about how the research process works in terms of the fluidity and non-permanence of findings, as well as issues to do with fossil collection methods.

I’m not saying it should have got global mass media coverage, but it would ha been nice to see a few more articles along the lines of ‘Hey, remember that Spinosaurus paper from last year..?’ Communicating about these sorts of processes are far more important than simply distributing raw facts, as that’s simply not what science is. Science is about drawing conclusions based on the best available and most rigorously assessed information, not jumping on a bandwagon of ‘ZOMG dinosaurs!*’ We shouldn’t be afraid to discuss the raw research more broadly. After all, ‘communication’ is not about the simple one-way conveying of ‘science stories’ – it’s about informing, educating, and increasing the knowledge base and understanding of people with regards to topics that we find important. There’s beauty in that in itself.

Either way, it seems that Spinosaurus is a complicated dinosaur, and there remains a hidden complexity to deal with in interpreting the dinosaur remains of North Africa. A monograph dealing with the ‘Spinosaurus‘ material is forthcoming, so we’ll have to wait and see what the next chapter in the tale is!

*Yeah, I’m a bit guilty of this too, but I’m not the mass media..

10 thoughts on “Spinosaurus sails on

  1. Busy little blogger today, aren’t you?
    So, what is needed is more digging and more specimens – with better documentation of find localities and interrelationships.
    Wasn’t the British discovery Baryonyx incorporated into the Spinosauridae a while ago … yes, Wikipedia seems to think so. [… thinks …] But that’s no big deal ; the (North) Atlantic didn’t exist at the time, so Africa, Britain and the American West were all in relatively close proximity.

  2. I had a back log 😉

    Yes, some sort of collecting standards would be useful, but I imagine they would be difficult to implement when the fossil trade is such a big deal in North Africa, for commercial reasons. Simple guidelines on documentation would have to come from a higher power, such as any local palaeo groups or perhaps someone involved in the policy aspects of such things.

    Yes, Baryonyx is considered to be a spinosaurid, I believe, and part of its own subfamily. There’s also a Thai spinosaurid awaiting publishing, so these guys probably were quite cosmopolitan during the ‘middle’ Cretaceous.

    1. Just sticking to the Moroccan “Kem Kem” deposit (the name rings a bell, but I haven’t researched this), would it not be feasible to encourage the Moroccan Geology Ministry (if there is such – given the prevalence of oil along North Africa, I would be surprised if there were nothing) to encourage local commercial collectors to record such data in return for being in some way “licensed” – the carrot part of the equation being that properly provenanced and recorded commercial fossils would hopefully attract a higher price on the market?
      Sounds hopelessly idealistic, I know. Particularly if you combine Arabic love of “baksheesh” with African bureaucratic efficiency. (I’ve spent too long working in the Middle East and Africa to have many illusions left.)
      That said, I know almost nothing about the commercial fossil trade. I was brought a plaster cast of a Calymene in the early 1970s, and I’ve picked up (and put down) a couple of Moroccan trilobites in various rock shops. I know professors who have spent hundreds of quid on fish fossils (in the 1980s!), but I prefer each item in my rock pile to have it’s own story of when I found it. For example : the unwritten First Law of the Rock Hound being “Look before you piss.”

  3. For a 100 page paper (Evers et al.) to gloss over the bone histology data from the Ibrahim et al. supplementary data – which shows congruence in growth stage in BOTH the vertebral and appendicular elements – is a noticeable omission. That both the vertebral elements and appendicular elements suggest subadult growth stage speaks against a chimeric origin. The Evers paper would have been much better served if it concentrated on making the case for Sigilmassasaurus as a distinct taxa rather than making a whole-scale (but rather weak and less than comprehensive) assault on the Ibrahim et al. neotype, collection method, chimera argument etc etc.

    It is also possible to find the complete Ibrahim et al. article online: http://www.researchgate.net/profile/David_Martill/publication/265553416_Semiaquatic_adaptations_in_a_giant_predatory_dinosaur/links/545361430cf2bccc4909c198.pdf
    as well as the more in-depth supp materials: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/suppl/2014/09/10/science.1258750.DC1/Ibrahim.SM.pdf

    1. Hey Duane, thanks for your comment!

      Would it not be equally possible for the specimens to represent two (or more) sub-adult specimens in that case too?

      I think it would have been difficult to disassociate a comparative discussion between Sigilmassasaurus and Spinosaurus without addressing some of the issues with the proposed neotype specimen.

      And yep, it is possible to find the Science article, if you’re one of the lucky people to have an institutional login! It’s a pity the original article wasn’t made freely available to everyone given that there was such a huge media storm around it. Missed opportunity again there.

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