Spinosaurus: Why Giants aren't so Bad*ss!
In October of 1989, when director Steven Spielberg was speaking with science fiction author Michael Crichton about ideas for screenplay of a TV series, the author let slip the news that he planned on writing a book about geneticists resurrecting dinosaurs. Before any other deals were done, Spielberg demanded rights to a screenplay for the book, which was a non-negotiable fee of 1.5 million US Dollars along with a fair percentage of the gross from the film. Crichton agreed, and before he had even published his final draft, the film Jurassic Park was on its way to development. Four years later, it would hit the big screen as one of the biggest films of our age, roughly three years after the book was released. By then, Jurassic Park was a bestseller, and was well on its way to becoming Crichton's signature novel, so the movie took the world by storm. By May of 2013, the film's total earnings has equaled to roughly about an estimate of $970 Million worldwide, making it the 18th most grossed film in history.
Since then, the franchise has been released in many, many formats. Many of us remember the famous website, the JP Institute (may it rest in peace), along with several dozens of video games released in all kinds of formats ranging from home console to PC to even arcade systems. The book alone became Crichton's signature novel, as mentioned earlier, and later led to the creation of the sequel in the series. Since then the movie has had follow ups, and while some are better than others they still fit relatively well and are considered to be some of the best of cinema, accurate to the series or not.
Probably the one that I have a lot of memories of is Jurassic Park 3. While not an adaptation of the book itself, the sequel to the series pits famous paleontologist Alan Grant, the protagonist of the first film and book, against the fabled Isla Sorna or Site B from the second book and film. Attempting to rescue the son of a department store owner and his ex-wife, Grant finds himself facing his worst nightmares all over again (namely the ever-changing Velociraptors) and, of course, a new and deadly face; Spinosaurus Aegypticus.
Now comes the paleontology part. For those of you who don't know, Spinosaurus Aegypticus is one of the most popular dinosaurs to date (for obvious reasons...I mean, Hollywood's practically glorified it). Known for scant fossils found primarily in Egypt and the Sahara (Northern Africa primarily), the dinosaur is known for being estimated to be by far the biggest carnivorous dinosaur to date. This is due to its headgear; a long snout like a crocodile's that makes it much longer than a Tyrannosaur's skull, but not nearly as thick; and its spine, which carried neural extensions that made it look like a giant sailback.
Spinosaurus to date does not have a single complete skeleton, though it has several casts and estimates based on other bones and the bones of family members of its species. While it once had a complete skeleton, this had been discovered by German Paleontologists which took it to the Natural History Museum in Berlin...which, unfortunately, had been dug up and set up for display just before WWII hit. By the time when American forces finished bombing the capital of hated Germany, most of the city was sacked or in flames, and the Natural History Museum was chief among these. It isn't stated whether or not any of the fossils survived, though it's likely enough fragments and details were left to cover how big the creature really was.
In any case, the highlight of the third film was that Spinosaurus was an unprecedented addition to the Park that wasn't included in the roster; likely, not even John Hammond, InGen's founder, knew at all about it. This suggested that not only was the Site B staff keeping secrets from their CEO, they were also performing genetic experiments. The team of protagonists manage to make their way to the island only to have their plane encroached by the monster within minutes after their arrival. The plane crashes, and the monster follows, intent upon making a meal out of the humans. They do their best to escape only to run into what was thought to be the island's top predator, a T. Rex (explained to be a Juvenile by the development team, the grown baby of the second film). They end up leading the two predators into one another by mistake, which then causes them to duke it out. The smaller Rex tries in vain to take out the more massive predator, but then gets its neck snapped in half and potentially leads to the corpse being devoured by the blatantly more amazing predator.
Since that famed fight, paleontologists, fossil hunters, and dinosaur lovers the world over steadily complained until it became an uproar. The fight had been unfair and blatantly in the larger carnivore's favor, while the Hollywood script didn't even give the smaller Rex a chance to deploy its famed killing tool; its own bite. But the deed was done. Almost overnight, Spinosaurus was the new king of the dinosaurs. The fabled Tyrannosaurus Rex's crown was stolen away in favor of the new gilded champion of the silver screen, and would later be shown all over the world as an indomitable predator that takes no prisoners.
The purpose of this little piece of non fiction isn't to put down a species; Spinosaurs are among my favorite dinosaurs (two of the known species, Baryonyx and Suchomimus, are in particular favorites of mine). It's simply to give those new to dinosaurs (or only experience them through popular media) a chance to see exactly what kind of predator it was, why it would have been so formidable...and why a T. Rex would be more than able to smoke it in one-on-one combat.
The Largest Carnivore to walk the Earth
For many years Tyrannosaurus Rex had the title of biggest man on campus. That all changed when we began discovering other predatory dinosaurs throughout the world. With the discovery of Tarbosaurus Bataar in Mongolia, we found out that T. Rex was not the only giant carnivore in the world, and that other Tyrannosaurs dominated the northern hemisphere. But then what really surprised scientists was the discovery of predators found in the same fossil beds as the ones were the giant sauropod dinosaurs were found in South America; giant sauropods that once, long ago, shared relatives that had to deal with the same family of giant reptiles; Allosaurs.
The Charcharodontosaurs proved to paleontologists that Tyrannosaurs weren't the only giant predators of the Cretaceous Period. While for the most part they didn't possess nearly the same kind of armory as a Rex, they did have larger skulls with hatchet-like teeth and had the added advantage of size on their side. They had evolved specifically to hunt the very large prey like the Sauropod dinosaurs, such as Argentinosaurus and Sauroposeidon from South American and Africa respectively. It was something their ancestors did long before them in the Jurassic, and it would have been something they'd continue in the future until the last of the giant dinosaurs died out. It was in discovering these fossils that the idea that predators bigger than T.Rex were speculated, and soon after scientists began to take an interest in the only other large carnivore in the Cretaceous they had known up to that point; a dinosaur whose fossil remains were thought lost in WWII bombings.
Spinosaur fossils have a tendency of being hard to find, but what we can find shows that they are very big. What is known about them in particular is that they are part of a group of theropod dinosaurs classified as Spinosaurs after the signature Spinosaurus. They are known for their elongated, crocodile-like skulls, their long sharp fore-thumbs similar to a Raptor's second toe (but located on the hand instead), and their spines, which extend long enough to create a noticable spinal ridge across the top. Up to this point, two other spinosaurs were identified with a third speculated (Irritator from Brazil), before the group was named.
Spinosaurus's key trait is its massive neural spines, which are taller than a man at their tallest, and have a degree in thickness unlike those found in previously discovered spined reptiles (Pelycosaurs, such as Dimetrodon from the Permian Period, being among the first with very thin, elongated spines, and Ouranosaurus, which had thicker spines and weren't nearly as elongated. It was enough that it's been hypothesized that Spinosaurus had a hump like a Buffalo instead, though this hump would be rather big and, in a carnivorous dinosaur, would likely be a very unnecessary adaptation. More likely it was built for display or like a Pelycosaur's, used for temperature regulation similar to an organic solar panel.
Spinosaurus's size has been estimated to have ranged in length between 49 and 59 feet long, enough dimensions that it already severely dwarfs the largest Tyrannosaurus by almost over 15 feet in length. By reptile standards, this is massive. With the sail added this would make Spinosaurus also the tallest of the theropod dinosaurs, ranging well within 30 feet in height. It's little wonder Hollywood's glorified this monster of predators; if bigger is better, Spinosaurus would be the dinosaur equivalent of Chuck Norris or Arnold Schwarzenegger circa Terminator 1. Pure blockbuster material right there.
Of course, we don't have enough fossil evidence to point towards whether or not that size was even useful to Spinosaurus. Spinosaurs have been show to share adaptations similar to crocodiles; an elognated snout, with conical teeth designed to grip prey rather than tear off chunks of flesh. Recent finds have shown that they also may have had pressure sensors in their snouts, making them perfectly adapted to hunting while standing in water. This would have made them the perfect fishermen of the dinosaur world. Hunting fish provides new means of opportunity and less competition; when there are other predators that are bigger than you, the best way to cope is to find food that's plentiful that other dinosaurs cannot get to. Fish swimming upstream in rivers, or generally swimming about in ponds and lakes, provide perfect sustenance for a dinosaur that would otherwise be forced to directly compete with competition.
As time would go by, they would become better adapted to their lives as fish hunters. They'd become powerful swimmers, able to move in the water like their crocodile cousins. They'd develop powerful forearms capable of tearing flesh similar to a bear's, which would free up their jaws for gripping slippery fish. And in order to keep themselves off of the food chain they'd have to get bigger than their competition, until they themselves were big enough that they could hunt other dinosaurs for their own food as well as fish.
More than one bully on the block...
Spinosaurus became the epitome of that evolutionary line, and likely would have been just as successful as the Tyrannosaurs until their extinction roughly 90+ MYA. By that time it had all of the adaptations that made it an even deadlier hunter than its predecessors. It could hunt fish, and likely hunted sawfish over 8 meters in length. It could also hunt dinosaurs, as tooth marks in other fossils suggested. But it wasn't exactly the dominant killer, especially when a neural spine was discovered having been bitten off; the jaw size belonging to the only other large carnivore in the region; Charcharadontosaurus.
What made Spinosaurus really successful was most definitely not its arsenal. By predator standards, Spinosaurs were wimps; relying on a change in diet rather than directly competing with other predators for food. While this strategy paid off in the end, their bodies became adapted so that they would become the perfect fish killers...not theropod fighters. Its skull was long, pointed, and full of conical teeth designed to grip prey. The bite itself would be relatively deadly to a herbivorous dinosaur half of its size, but to a predator nearly matching it in weight and length it could easily be shrugged off.
Its claws were another matter. Spinosaurus's conical teeth would have been an eating hazard if it was unable to tear apart prey to get at the juicy flesh within. While this problem is easily solved in mammals due to their three different modes of teeth, in archosaurs like the dinosaurs and crocodiles this presents a problem. Their teeth are almost all very much alike, with only the incisors and tearing teeth having any real difference between species. Instead of teeth change they usually become adapted by the way they feed through other means. Crocodiles do this by simply biting into their prey and tearing it off piecemeal usually by performing a death roll. While this 'could' have been accomplished in early Spinosaurs like Baryonyx, for Spinosaurus performing any form of action that would involve damaging its neural spines would be fatal; it would break its back all along the vertebrae and likely die instantly.
So, instead, they used their claws. Spinosaurs all have a powerful foreclaw on their hands that looks in appearance almost identical to the powerful toe claws that make the Dromaeosaur dinosaurs so famed. Claws like that are designed to grip straight through flesh, and are thick enough that, when pulled, tear through skin like a butcher's knife. Powerful arms would be needed for a predator of this size to tear large enough chunks fast enough for it to become an efficient eater of any diet; fish or otherwise.
This being said, arsenal-wise Charcharadontosaurus has the advantage. As a descendant of Allosaurs; efficient and deadly killers for their time that left quite a mark on history as predators of the largest of herbivore dinosaurs; Charcharadontosaurus already has genetic experience at being an efficient hunter. But its prey isn't fish; it does not satisfy itself with meager prey. Instead, it hunts the largest of animals, ranging from the hadrosaurs like the Iguanadonts to the massive sauropod dinosaurs like Sauroposeidon. Regardless of how big they got, dinosaurs like these usually got the meal they wanted regardless of how old or young it was or how massively big. Sauroposeidons were big enough that if predators wanted they would simply slice off chunks of flesh from the dinosaurs while they were still alive; wounding them but not killing them, often following the same animal until it eventually dies of blood loss and infection.
Charcharodontosaurus would do this through a combination of its bite and its jaws. Like allosaurs, it could potentially have used its upper jaw like a hatchet; sawing off chunks of flesh straight off of the animal and administering shock and blood loss similar to hacking with a butcher's cleaver into a living oxen; brutal, certainly not a clean kill, but effective and efficient for its needs. Its jaws likely were also much stronger than Spinosaurus's, though not nearly as strong as Tyrannosaurus's. Charcharodontosaurus also had a much larger skull and mouth, initially placing it with the largest skull of any land animal on the planet.
Just this massive head alone could beat a Spinosaur's powerful arms and conical teeth in a heartbeat, but Spinosaurus did have one advantage; its size. All large predators use their size to bully others; Lions in Africa use their size and power to drive Hyenas away from a kill so that they could enjoy the spoils instead. Other predators simply have no other option, regardless of how more efficiently they actually can kill. Spinosaurus is without a doubt the largest carnivore to walk the Earth. Its sail alone more than makes up for the size it otherwise would have to make up for if it ever stood shoulder to shoulder with other large carnivores. Though it's more likely that it had other uses, if used for display this sail could have intimidated anything on the planet that lived. There would be no conceivable way a Charcharadontosaurus would even consider going near a dinosaur that big that was a predator.
Yet it still did. It's obvious that these two predators entangled with one another, based on fossil evidence. But despite this, the likelihood that they'd fight each other to the death was very slim. Most predators of similar size try to avoid each other if they can. Better to go hungry and stay alive than to die with a full belly and your enemy's teeth buried in your skull.
Regardless of who was more successful of a predator, in the end the reason why Spinosaurus died out was because it was too specialized in being a river hunter. When the climate changed roughly 95 MYA, Spinosaurus found its natural habitat overswamped. Large amounts of drought first killed the river valleys, and later flooding from the Mediterranean saw to it that its food supply was cut short. Massive deltas and shallow seas replaced the swamps and rivers it called home, and without its primary source of food it could not adapt to continue its line of hunters, or move fast enough to escape the change.
The change in the climate was too fast for Spinosaurus, and soon the biggest predator to ever walk the Earth went extinct...
Predators of today's world tend to avoid each other when in a battle of dominance. When territory disputes are proclaimed between species, the visibly larger usually gets the rewards and the lesser backs down, preferring not to fight. In the event predators do get into tangles, it's usually because they have little other choice; desperation and lack of food is almost always the key motivator to fights between large carnivores, regardless of the time they lived in, and ensuring competition is eliminated when the contender is smaller or physically frail is almost always a better alternative to either starvation or a fight.
The Jurassic Park III fight was rigged, yes. Hollywood couldn't help but let the big guy come out on top. In any other situation, Spinosaurus and Tyrannosaurus would not want anything to do with each other; neither even lived in the same continent or time period. And if two fully grown of either species ever got into a fight for survival, a Tyrannosaur's armaments would have made it the superior fighter; its jaws could crush bone, and by simply grabbing a limb or a spine such ferocity could be displayed with ease. Grab the neck or a leg and the Spinosaurus would be as good as dead.
But there are a few things we were forgetting about the fight; three key things. The first was that, like it was mentioned by the filmmakers, the Tyrannosaur was still a juvenile. It's common practice for major predators to eliminate competition by killing off a youngster and thereby ending the reproductive line of a species before it even begins. This provides more food in the long run and is more than not worth the risk. The second was that Spinosaurus was produced through genetic reconstruction; there was a good chance genetic tampering was involved, more than likely for the sake of militarizing a species for warfare (I dunno about you, but tank or no tank I'd be getting the hell out if there was a Spinosaurus charging in from the enemy side). And the third is that it's Hollywood; they always have to glorify or change something if they think it'll make big bucks. How many of you would have likely watched the movie again if the Spinosaurus just left before the fight even started, or if the star dinosaur was killed before it could even show off its moves? In the end, it's something to appreciate, because damn, that was some badass CGI...