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B is for Becklespinax

For over a century and a half, paleontologists have been confounded by the sail-backed carnivore Becklespinax. What did this dinosaur really look like?

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The peculiar, high-spined specimen that represents Becklespinax (left), and two possible restorations of the dinosaur by Darren Naish (right). From Naish and Martill, 2007.

Poor, neglected Becklespinax. Although this gaudy, sail-backed theropod was an impressive predator at the time it strode across England around 140 million years ago, the fragmentary remains of this dinosaur have a tangled history only recently highlighted by the discovery of a more completely-known relative. In the history of paleontology, Becklespinax the tale is a tragedy.

The bones of Becklespinax were among the earliest spate of dinosaur discoveries in England, before anyone really understand just how many dinosaurs there were and how widely they varied in form. No surprise, then, that when the British anatomist Richard Owen illustrated a strange set of three high-spined vertebrae in 1855, he assigned them to the carnivorous dinosaur Megalosaurus. After all, Megalosaurus was already a hodgepodge of theropod remains from different eras, so it’s no altogether surprising that Owen considered the strange vertebrae as part of the same animal. He was confident enough in his assessment that when Owen schooled the artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins in dinosaur anatomy for the famous Crystal Palace reconstructions, the anatomist instructed the sculptor to give Megalosaurus a hump between the shoulders on account of the elongated neural spines in the one specimen.

Along with teeth and other bits, the strange sting of vertebrae were thrown together into the species Megalosaurus dunkeri by researchers such as Richard Lydekker. No one found any complete skeleton–just scattered pieces. Then, in 1926, paleontologist Friedrich von Huene proposed that the spines and teeth of this “Megalosaurus” were so different from others of its type that it deserved its own genus–”Altispinax.” So scientists kicked the name Altispinax around for awhile, but this was another hodgepodge dinosaur consisting of various specimens from different places and time periods. In 1991, dinosaur fan George Olshevsky suggested that the set of three vertebrae carry the name Becklespinax altispinax, and, so far, that name has stuck.

But just what sort of dinosaur was Becklespinax? Paleontologist and prolific blogger Darren Naish addressed this question a few years back. The dinosaur was clearly a relatively large theropod, probably over 20 feet long. But, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was no other dinosaur quite like it. Without a more complete skeleton, it was impossible to tell. And even after other big theropods with elongated spines on their backs were discovered–such as the croc-snouted Spinosaurus from the Late Cretaceous of Africa and the deep-skulled Acrocanthosaurus from the Early Cretaceous of North America–the anatomy of Becklespinax didn’t match those forms.

Even worse, the extremely limited material confounded paleontologists who attempted to figure out what the back of Becklespinax looked like. Were those elongated spines a sign of a high sail that ran most of the length of the dinosaur’s back, as in Spinosaurus? Or did it indicate a short, high ornament near the hips? Naish illustrated both possibilities in a 2007 paper he wrote with colleague David Martill. The first vertebral spine contained yet another puzzle. This bone was shorter than the following two. This might have been a pathology, or even because the bones came from the front part of the sail as it was building to its full height. No one knew for sure.

Then along came Concavenator. In 2010, paleontologist Francisco Ortega and colleagues named this carnivorous dinosaur on the basis of a gorgeous, 130-million-year-old skeleton found in Spain. A cousin of the high-spined Acrocanthosaurus from North America, Concavenator also had a weird backbone–the carcharodontosaur had a high, shark-fin-shaped sail just in front of the hips.

In over a century and a half, no one has ever found a better or more complete specimen of the English dinosaur, yet Concavenator offered a glimmer of what Becklespinax might have looked like. Both were sail-backed theropods that lived in the Early Cretaceous of Europe. And while our knowledge of Becklespinax is frustratingly incomplete, the resemblance of the dinosaur’s known remains to the corresponding parts in Concavenator suggest that Becklespinax, too, was a sail-backed carcharodontosaur. Their relationship may even go deeper. While the two dinosaurs lived about 10 million years apart, Naish pointed out, it’s possible that both dinosaur species belong to the same genus. Concavenator corcovatus might, in fact, be rightly called Becklespinax corcovatus. Without a fuller view of what the skeleton of Becklespinax looked like, though, it’s impossible to tell.

Whatever Becklespinax is, paleontologists have almost certainly found other scraps from this dinosaur. The trick is correctly identifying and assembling the scattered pieces. It takes years to untangle the history and form of dinosaurs found during the 19th century, as paleontologist Roger Benson did with Megalosaurus. A skeleton–even a partial one–would be even better. Such a discovery would go a long way towards outlining the nature of the frustratingly-incomplete Becklespinax, although other questions would certainly remain.

Between Acrocanthosaurus, Becklespinax and Concavenator, the massive carcharodontosaurs of the Early Cretaceous were apparently well-decorated predators that bore distinctive ridges and sails on their backs. Why? What good would such ornaments be to large predators? Were they signals of dominance, advertisements of sexual desirability or even just easily-seen markers that an individual belonged to this species and not that one? No one knows. As debates about sexual selection and dinosaur ornamentation heat up, even rapacious carnivores will have a role to play.

Previous posts in this series:

A is for Agujaceratops

Reference:

Naish, D., and Martill, D. 2007. Dinosaurs of Great Britain and the role of the Geological Society of London in their discovery: basal Dinosauria and Saurischia. Journal of the Geological Society, 164 (3), 493-510 DOI: 10.1144/0016-76492006-032

Ortega, F., Escaso, F., and Sanz, J. 2010. A bizarre, humped Carcharodontosauria (Theropoda) from the Lower Cretaceous of Spain Nature, 467 (7312), 203-206 DOI: 10.1038/nature09181

Stovall, J., & Langston, W. 1950. Acrocanthosaurus atokensis, a new genus and species of Lower Cretaceous Theropoda from Oklahoma. American Midland Naturalist, 43 (3): 696–728. doi:10.2307/2421859

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About Brian Switek
Brian Switek

Brian Switek is a freelance science writer specializing in evolution, paleontology, and natural history. He writes regularly for National Geographic's Phenomena blog as Laelaps.

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