A new raptor-like dinosaur discovered in Spain helps to tell the backstory of a little-understood, semi-aquatic family of predators that likely originated in Europe, researchers have concluded.
The Spinosaurids were a family of long, scrappy dinosaurs that branched into many different species, including the new Protathlitis cinctorrensis, which was believed to measure 10 to 11 meters long and possess long, conical teeth. Past studies have concluded that the family most likely ate fish – wading into the water like a heron – while also grabbing the occasional pterosaur, a group of flying dinosaurs.
One paper said of the Spinosaurids: “They are not as well-known as other theropod groups due to a combination of the fragmentary nature of their fossil record, mainly based on isolated elements like teeth,” as well as their unusual skeletal structure.
How a New Species of Dinosaur Fits In
The most recent discovery centered on a right jawbone, a tooth and five vertebrae from the Arcillas de Morella Formation in Spain, which dates back to the Early Cretaceous period (up to 145 million years ago). The area has also yielded other dinosaur fossils. The new Spinosaurid bones dated to between 126 and 127 million years ago and helped to flesh out the Spinosaurid family tree, alongside better-known species such as the titanic Spinosaurus and the smaller Baryonyx.
The new species also marks the identification of a new genus, Protathlitis, which means “champion” in Greek, after a European soccer team, Villarreal C.F., that won the UEFA Europa League title in 2021, according to ABC News.
Cinctorrensis honors the town, Cinctorres, located near the dig site.
Paths From Europe to Around the World
Tracing how Spinosaurid dinosaurs spread around the world has proven complicated thanks to how continental drift has changed the face of the Earth over the past 150 million years. The new study proposes that Spinosaurids appeared in present-day Europe and diversified there into two sub-families, Spinosaurines and Baryonychines.
At this time, Europe belonged to the larger northern continent of Laurasia, and the Spinosaurids somehow migrated from there to present-day Africa, part of the Gondwana continent. Over time, the Spinosaurines took over Africa, whereas the Baryonychines became more prevalent in Europe.
Spinosaurids also spread to land that became South America, South Asia and the U.K., where they left behind the teeth now most commonly used to identify them.
An Aquatic Predator?
Paleontologists have debated exactly how aquatic the largest Spinosaurid, Spinosaurus, was and whether it ambushed prey underwater or simply waded in to grab fish like a crocodile. Recent research has taken up the latter argument:
“This is simply not an animal that in your wildest dreams would be dynamic above water as a swimmer much less underwater,” says Paul Sereno, a professor of organismal biology and anatomy at the University of Chicago, in a press release.