The long, tragic and occasionally controversial research history of the giant, enigmatic theropod Spinosaurus aegyptiacus will be familiar to many readers of this blog*. First named and described in the early 20th century by Ernst Stromer from remains found in Late Cretaceous strata of Egypt, our principle Spinosaurus material fell victim to Allied bombing raids in World War II and was completely destroyed. Stromer's detailed illustrations and descriptions are all that remains of this material, and these have formed a variably interpreted foundation of all subsequent Spinosaurus research. For much of the 20th century the life appearance of Spinosaurus remained mysterious. Depicted as a nondescript sailed giant theropod early on, discovery of well represented spinosaurids like Baryonyx and Suchomimus, as well as fragments of new Spinosaurus material, permitted more confident interpretations of Spinosaurus size and form as we approached the new millennium. By the 2010s, Spinosaurus was recognised as a gigantic, derived and perhaps semi-aquatic spinosaurid, adapted for feeding on large aquatic prey (above). Much of this interpretation relied on new Spinosaurus remains from multiple locations in northern Africa, including the famous Moroccan Kem Kem Beds, an expanse of Late Cretaceous rocks roughly contemporaneous with those Egyptian deposits yielding the original, destroyed Spinosaurus remains.
*For succinct overviews of Spinosaurus research prior to 2014, check out posts at Tetrapod Zoology and Laelaps.
Famously, last year saw Spinosaurus reinvented again, this time as a quadrupedal, knuckle-walking, long-bodied, tiny-legged dinosaurian take on a crocodile or early whale (below). The authors of this widely publicised study, Nizar Ibrahim and colleagues (2014), synthesised existing and new data on African spinosaurids to create this reconstruction, synonymising several taxa into S. aegyptiacus and presenting new Spinosaurus remains obtained from the Kem Kem beds. The most significant of these was a set of associated vertebrae, pelvic and hindlimb remains which were proposed as a neotype specimen for Spinosaurus (a specimen to hold the Spinosaurus name now that the original material is lost to science). That this neotype represents Spinosaurus was bolstered by it bearing similar hindlimb and vertebral proportions to 'Spinosaurus B', a collection of Egyptian spinosaurid specimens described by Stromer, considered referable to Sp. aegyptiacus by Ibrahim and colleagues. Spinosaurus B is also now lost, also being destroyed in WWII. The Ibrahim et al. study provided a lot of new data on Spinosaurus and has helped cement the concept of it being a semi-aquatic animal, but several aspects of the paper didn't meet the warmest reception from a number of academics. Specific issues were scaling of the skeletal components, how sensible it was to lump so much north African spinosaurid material into one species, and uncertainty about the provenance of the neotype specimen. Some of these concerns were diffused by the authors, but we await a promised monograph for answers to all the questions raised by their first paper. In the mean time, the 2014 Spinosaurus interpretation remains a debated topic among those interested in dinosaur palaeontology.
|The Ibrahim et al. (2014) take on Spinosaurus aegyptiacus. Different colours represent different specimens: red is the neotype; brown is the original Spinosaurus material; yellow is referred, isolated Spinosaurus remains; green bones are borrowed from other spinosaurids, and blue bones are crafted to fit the skeleton based on neighbouring elements. Image borrowed from Smithsonian.com.|
One year later...This week, the Spinosaurus tale has taken another twist with publication of a mammoth (open access) paper penned by a team of European spinosaurid experts, led by Serjoscha Evers. Evers et al. have reappraised the affinities of Moroccan specimens seemingly related to Spinosaurus: Sigilmassasaurus brevicollis and Spinosaurus maroccanus. These animals, known only from vertebrae, were subsumed into Sp. aegyptiacus by Ibrahim et al. (2014) as part of their trans-African Spinosaurus concept, and that decision is a core focus of the Evers et al. paper. Their work contains extensive commentary on the detailed anatomy of Moroccan spinosaur material and what it might mean for recent interpretations of Spinosaurus form and lifestyle. Given the wide interest in Spinosaurus and the 2014 reconstruction, I thought it might be of interest to summarise some of what they outline here.
Firstly, taxonomic revisions proposed by Evers et al. present a very different picture of what fossils we can identify as belonging to Spinosaurus. Their work on Si. brevicollis and Sp. maroccanus suggests these species are probably one and the same (the latter being sunk into the former), and that Sigilmassasaurus should be considered distinct from Sp. aegyptiacus. They go on to suggest that other Kem Kem vertebrae hint at a second spinosaurid species in the Kem Kem fauna, and outline several reasons why the Ibrahim et al. 'neotype' specimen cannot be referred to Spinosaurus. For one, the neotype is anatomically quite different from Stromer's Egyptian 'Spinosaurus B' specimen. Ibrahim et al. considered Spinosaurus B as representing Sp. aegyptiacus, but Evers and colleagues argue that Spinosaurus B is anatomically more similar to Sigilmassasaurus than Spinosaurus. Spinosaurus B therefore might have no use for linking any specimens specifically to Sp. aegyptiacus, including that all-important neotype.
In addition to these morphological objections, Evers et al, also raise palaeobiogeographic issues with the 'neotype' referral. Evidence for Egyptian dinosaur species being present in Morocco is scant at best, most data indicating little mixing of eastern and western African dinosaur species during the Late Cretaceous. It would be unusual, then, to find the Egyptian species Sp. aegyptiacus in Morocco. Palaeobiogeography is not a deal clincher for taxonomy of course - careful examination of the neotype and genuine Spinosaurus remains will be the deciding factor here - but it is another stick in the mud for the neotype proposal. Although the exact identity of the 'neotype' specimen is left in the air by Evers et al. - ongoing descriptive work on the specimen needs to be completed to truly assess this - they reject the proposal of the Kem Kem specimen as a Sp. aegyptiacus neotype, and leave Spinosaurus characterised by features in Stromer's illustrations. This is obviously quite a shake up of the suggestions made last year: Spinosaurus 2014 might be a mix of at least two named species, incorporate material of under-appreciated taxonomic importance, and substantial, newly published material might have little, if anything, to do with Spinosaurus.
|The proposed Spinosaurus neotype. Image borrowed from Andrea Cau's excellent Theropoda blog.|
Moving on, Evers et al. also raise concerns about interpretations of Spinosaurus in context of Kem Kem fossil collecting practises. Museum exhibitions and PR exercises suggest that the Kem Kem yields complete skeletons of dinosaurs and other fossil vertebrates, but the reality is quite the opposite. Kem Kem vertebrates are typically preserved as isolated, often broken bones in multitaxic bone beds (that is, bone beds comprising many species). Associated skeletons of single individuals do occur, but they're relatively rare and rely on precise collecting documentation to prove their authenticity. Unfortunately, historic and recent records of Spinosaurus occurrences and excavation are often poor. We might chalk a lack of historic documentation to the practises and technological limitations of bygone times, but recent issues are caused primarily by the commercial value of Kem Kem fossils. The greater majority of Kem Kem fossils, including dinosaurs, are collected without extensive documentation and then sold by private dealers. Even if localities are recorded, ambiguity often surrounds association of fossil material prior to excavation. Several alleged associated Spinosaurus specimens are meant to have come from single localities, but being from the same place is really only half the battle if they stemmed from multitaxic assemblages. Concordant size of bones might suggest genuine association, but this is not always certain either: Evers et al. report practises where collectors sort loose material from disparate locations into type and size categories before sale - nefarious individuals making fossil skeletons more substantial with unassociated elements is a real problem the world over. It's sad but true that the monetary value associated with substantial vertebrate fossils makes ascertaining their authenticity crucial for subsequent credible interpretation.
Unfortunately, Evers et al. report these factors as affecting virtually all associated Spinosaurus material, including the 'neotype' and the other specimen key to the 2014 reconstruction, Spinosaurus B. In the case of the latter, all we have to go on to establish association are Stromer's notes, which are not quite as detailed as we might like. For the neotype, we know some of the specimen was directly collected in the field, and that other bits were purchased from dealers by two academic institutions over a two year period - exact documentation of this remains to be presented (hopefully it will in the 'neotype' monograph). Without strict certainty over how many individuals these specimens might represent, Evers et al. suggest some of the odd proportions in recent Spinosaurus reconstructions may reflect the marrying of mismatched bones to one another. That's not a certainty, of course, but it's also something which shouldn't be casually ignored.
Collectively, Evers et al. use these points to provide an alternative take on Spinosaurus to that presented in 2014. Ibrahim et al. argued that their new material helped simplify and integrate different interpretations of African spinosaurid material, but Evers et al. argue the opposite: they emphasise how poorly known Spinosaurus and kin are, and how interpreting fossils of north African spinosaurids is getting increasingly complex. Spinosaurus fossils remain very fragmentary to the point where most cannot be directly compared, they seem to hint at, but don't really crystalise, an apparent high species diversity, and are often of uncertain association or exact origin. At face value, that doesn't leave us with a lot to be confident about, although we'll have to see how this more despondent view goes down with other spinosaurid researchers. More complete and well documented discoveries will soon help smooth out bumps in our knowledge, but it seems likely that a lot of work and discussion remains to sort out what is really going on with north African, Late Cretaceous spinosaurids.
What does this mean for 'the Spinosaurus reboot'?That's not quite the end of our discussion, however. It might be assumed that the points outlined above sound the death knell for the strangely proportioned 2014 Spinosaurus reconstruction, and that we should go back to our traditional interpretation of this animal. That might not be quite right, for two reasons. Firstly, given how distinctive many 'Spinosaurus' remains now seem to be, it's actually questionable what specimens should be considered Sp. aegyptiacus at all, other than the first specimen described by Stromer. A lot of referred isolated Spinosaurus specimens have been incorporated into our 'traditional' reconstructions in recent years, and we might need to think hard about their role in our interpretations of this animal. What we've become typically used to thinking of as Spinosaurus may not entirely be Spinosaurus!
Secondly, while some aspects of the 2014 interpretation of Spinosaurus have clearly been challenged by the Evers et al. paper, not all proportional aspects of the recent Spinosaurus reinvention are obviously erroneous. Last year, Ibrahim et al. noted that both Spinosaurus B and the 'neotype' have reduced hindlimbs with respect to their associated vertebrae, and used this fact as support for the diminutive legs in their reconstruction. Although arguing that there is no longer evidence for short hindlimbs in Spinosaurus itself, Evers et al. don't completely dismiss the notion of some African spinosaurids being short legged. The hindlimb proportions of those specimens is very similar despite the vagaries surrounding fossilisation and exhumation of ancient animal remains, maybe more similar than you'd expect from chance alone. If it is coincidence, it's certainly a startling one.
|Stromer's 'Spinosaurus B' material: proportionally similar to the 'neotype' specimen, but does that tell us anything about spinosaurid proportions? Another image borrowed from Theropoda.|
So that's the latest chapter of research in Spinosaurus, then: I don't doubt that it's going to cause a lot of discussion in popular and academic circles. My personal take-home is that we seem to know less about Spinosaurus than might have been recently suggested, or at least that some issues need to be ironed out before we can develop a clear picture of what Spinosaurus is, and what sort of lifestyle it led. I don't know that any recent proposals about this animal have been shot down entirely yet, although clear gauntlets have been established for some of the more extreme ideas suggested in the last few years. It's going to be very interesting to see how others interpret these latest developments in the ongoing Spinosaurus saga, and where our understanding of this animal moves to next.
Mighty Spinosaurus has nothing on the power of PatreonProduction of the artwork and words you see here is funded by my patrons, individuals who support this site via my Patreon page. From $1 a month you can be a patron too: this gets you access to cool, exclusive content and rewards, and helps me make my art and writing more detailed and interesting. Thanks to all those who've signed on already - your contributions are really appreciated.
- Evers, S. W., Rauhut, O. W. M, Milner, A. C, McFeeters, B, & Allain R. (2015) A reappraisal of the morphology and systematic position of the theropod dinosaur Sigilmassasaurus from the “middle” Cretaceous of Morocco. PeerJ 3:e1323
- Ibrahim, N., Sereno, P. C., Dal Sasso, C., Maganuco, S., Fabbri, M., Martill, D. M., & Zouhri, S., Myhrvold, N. and Iurino, D. A. (2014). Semiaquatic adaptations in a giant predatory dinosaur. Science, 345(6204), 1613-1616.
- Novas, F., Dalla Vecchia, F., & Pais, D. (2005). Theropod pedal unguals from the Late Cretaceous (Cenomanian) of Morocco, Africa. Revista del Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales nueva serie, 7(2), 167-175.
- Rauhut, O. W. M. (2003). Special Papers in Palaeontology, The Interrelationships and Evolution of Basal Theropod Dinosaurs (No. 69). Blackwell Publishing.