Rediscovering Spinosaurus, the Lost Dinosaur

The apex predator is back on the paleontological map thanks to a mustachioed Bedouin hunter and the color purple

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In 1910, Bavarian aristocrat and paleontologist Freiherr Ernst Stromer von Reichenbach set out for the Egyptian desert. Despite a cholera outbreak on his ship and a world on the brink of war, he persisted, reaching his destination and obtaining permission to excavate an area roughly 200 miles outside of Cairo. In the months that followed, he and Austrian fossil hunter Richard Markgraf unearthed the remains of dozens of turtles, crocodiles, marine reptiles and dinosaurs. Then, in 1912, they made the discovery of a lifetime.

In rocks dating back to the Late Cretaceous period, they detected the partial skeleton of a massive unknown dinosaur. Its features were peculiar, including a 15-foot crocodile-like jaw, large conical teeth and enormous spines rising five feet from its back, suggesting a hump or sail. All signs indicated that this was an apex predator similar to T-Rex, but that would make it one of at least two top-of-the-food-chain dinosaurs known to exist at the time. How could one ecosystem support so many terrifyingly large carnivores? This question became known as Stromer’s Riddle and would remain unsolved for decades.

Stromer named the dinosaur Spinosaurus aegypticis, or the Egyptian Spine Lizard, and rose to fame in the wake of the discovery. Tragically, his fame was short-lived. Stromer was openly critical of the Nazi party, and come World War II, paid the price. Stromer urged party leaders to move his collections from Munich to the safety of caves and salt mines, where most artworks and scientific collections were relocated to protect them from bombing raids, but in part due to his political beliefs, his pleas were ignored. Stromer’s collection remained in the Bavarian State Collection for Paleontology and Geology in Munich, which the Allied forces demolished in 1944. His family suffered as well. Two of his sons died on the front lines, and one was captured by the Soviets, unable to return until after the war. Stromer died in 1952 a broken man, and the Spinosaurus died with him. All that remained were his notes and sketches, and a few photographic records later donated to the renovated museum by his surviving son.

As the world recovered from the effects of war, small pieces of Spinosaurus skeletons were discovered around the world, and theories about Spinosaurus' place in the ecosystem began to emerge. However, due to the lack of a complete specimen, Spinosaurus remained a mystery.

Not until a series of chance encounters by paleontologist Nizar Ibrahim in the late 2000s did Spinosaurus once again enter the limelight. While conducting research in the fossil-rich Kem Kem Beds on the border of Morocco and Algeria in 2008, Ibrahim crossed paths with a Bedouin fossil hunter who showed him a collection of dinosaur bones housed in a distinctive purple sediment with yellow stripes. The following year at the Natural History Museum in Milan, Ibrahim was examining a newly discovered partial skeleton that appeared to be the same species as Stromer’s Spinosaurus when he noticed the same purple-yellow sediment clinging to them. These fossils, he thought, could belong to the same dinosaur.

Ibrahim returned to Erfoud, Morocco, to locate the Bedouin. However, he couldn’t remember the fossil hunter’s name or where he came from, only that he was wearing white clothes and had a mustache. The search seemed fruitless until one day, four years after visiting Milan, Ibrahim saw a man in a white with a mustache walk by the café where he was meeting fellow scientists. It was the Bedouin fossil hunter. Catching up to him, Ibrahim convinced the hunter to once again take them to the place were the fossil was recovered.

Now Ibrahim was able to put the fossils in context, deducing that the area in which the Spinosaurus was found was once a lush plain over which rivers meandered between the Early and Late Cretaceous periods. Combining scans of new finds with specimens in other collections, he was also able to create a detailed digital reconstruction of the dinosaur, offering new insight into its way of life. According to his reconstruction, an adult Spinosaurus would have measured 50 feet long, surpassing the T. Rex by almost 10 feet. Additionally, the dinosaur would have had a barrel-shaped torso like modern whales and dolphins and short, stumpy hind limbs that would have shifted its center of gravity forward, making it difficult to walk effectively on two legs. Instead, its front legs may have been used to walk on all fours on land and its hind limbs to paddle in the water. Perhaps Spinosaurus was not only largest carnivorous dinosaur that ever lived, but also the only known truly aquatically adapted one.

Thanks to that chance encounter at the café, today we have a potential answer to Stromer’s Riddle. Spinosaurus was able to coexist with other apex predators due to “ecological niche partitioning.” Rather, they lived in different environments. According to this theory, Spinosaurus represents a transition between the terrestrial and aquatic environments. However, it is important to acknowledge that Ibrahim’s reconstruction and interpretations are still being debated. Paleontological research is ever evolving and new discoveries may soon provide a more complete picture of Stromer's once-lost dinosaur.

This article is adapted from the "Introduction to Paleontology" video series by The Great Courses Plus.
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