Spinosaurus Devoured Meals Like a Giant Pelican

By Jon Tennant | January 11, 2016 12:53 pm

Spinosaurus may have eaten its prey much like a giant pelican or modern day snakes. (Credit: Sergey Krasovskiy)

Spinosaurus gained a notorious reputation in Jurassic Park 3 (spoiler alert), stomping on to the screen to take down the mighty T. rex in a rather memorable duel. Since gaining global fame on the silver screen, researchers now believe Spinosaurus was an adept swimmer, terrorizing local inhabitants of ancient river systems in North Africa some 100 million years ago.

A new study of the jaws of Spinosaurus indicates that it may have devoured its prey much like a giant pelican or modern snakes, opening its jaws wide to swallow unlucky critters whole. New fossils from rocks dating to the Cretaceous period from southeastern Morocco, known as the Kem-Kem beds, show that spinosaurs were able to widen their jaws and greatly open the pharynx to swallow over-sized chunks of food.

Part Crocodile, Part Pelican

“Spinosaurs were very strange animals with a crocodile-like skull showing a long and narrow snout and conical teeth,” says Octávio Mateus from Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Portugal. This has usually led to interpretations of spinosaurs as skilled fish hunters that may have even used their long claws as fish hooks.

The new study, published recently in the open-access journal PLOS One, is the first time a pelican-like feeding style has been discovered in dinosaurs. Christophe Hendrickx, lead author of the study and also at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa, noted that an unusual aspect of spinosaur jaws led to this conclusion.

“The mandibular symphysis [where the jaw bones meet at the front] of spinosaurids shows prominent parallel ridges where connective tissues got attached,” Henrickx says. This was combined with spinosaurs’ highly unusual anatomy where the lower jawbones articulated with the skull, which were much more free and mobile than other theropod dinosaurs.


An illustration of Spinosaurus swallowing a snack. (Credit: Jason Poole)

The design of the spinosaur jaw enabled the left and right jaws to be more movable and widen much more than if they were fused together like other bones in the skull. Similar feeding mechanics have also been suggested in pterosaurs, the cousins of dinosaurs, which are thought to also have preyed largely on fish.

Why spinosaurs adapted to dine like this is still up for debate. Hendrickx suggests that being able to eat large prey rapidly was necessary to sustain an animal of such a massive size. Spinosaurus grew up to 50 feet in length – longer than a T. rex. Gulping down food in a single bite might have also given them a competitive edge in a time when herbivorous dinosaurs, usually the prey of choice for theropod predators, in North Africa were relatively rare.


Christophe Hendrickx stands before a Spinosaurus skull.

Although often imagined as an adept fisher, Spinosaurus and its large relatives might also have preyed on other animals careless enough to get too close.

“It is very possible that the two spinosaurs from Morocco were also eating other type of preys such as herbivorous dinosaurs, pterosaurs, crocodiles, and turtles, and probably swallowed them as a whole if these preys were not too large,” Hendrickx says.

The newly discovered remains also help confirm a previous suspicion that the fossilized remains used to reconstruct Spinosaurus probably came from at least two different closely related species. Serjoscha Evers, a researcher at the University of Oxford who works on North African spinosaurs but was not involved in the present study, thinks the “environment of a near-coast river system would have supported their high diversity,” and that predators like spinosaurs were extreme specialists, “with niche partitioning playing a major role.”

Either way, the vision of a 15-meter-long crocodile-like dinosaur gulping its prey down is pretty terrifying.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
MORE ABOUT: dinosaurs, paleontology
  • Austin Jones

    Jon, I’ve heard on twitter that other paleo journalists think it is unethical to write a story on this because some of the bones were commercially collected. I assume you disagree?

    • Cedric D

      Censoring scientific findings over political disagreements? Wow.

      • Carcharodon

        I don’t have a problem with it. Most politicians these days are idiots. Their either ultra-liberal hypocrites or ultra-conservative assholes. They pale in comparison to the politicians we used to have.

    • Jon Tennant

      There’s a large debate about this sort of thing within the palaeontological community. Not writing about this sort of research isn’t going to solve anything. You have to weigh up the value between having non-commercial, publicly available specimens against privately owned, commercially obtained specimens but having information regarding those specimens publicly available. I think it’s a very sensitive issue, and I honestly don’t have any solutions for it right now.

      • Austin Jones

        I’m not actually a part of your field, but it sounds like you have a much more rational position than many others.

        Question – what makes the issue sensitive? You’re talking about long dead creatures, so it’s not like you have to worry about their conservation. It’s not like there is major industrial or medical potential either. No offense, but paleontologists aren’t exactly trying to cure cancer. Fossils are more curiosities of nature.

        • Jon Tennant

          So one thing is that the fossil market is worth a lot of money. You might have heard of T. rex fossils being sold for millions, so there’s a whole black market around that. So there is still value there!

          Another thing is that for research to be reproducible (one of the cornerstones of research), specimens have to be in a public archive.

          • Austin Jones

            You would know better than me, but is it actually that big of a market? I’ve heard of the Chicago t-rex sale, but have also heard of some auctioned fossils failing to meet their minimum from Montana, suggesting to me that fossils aren’t worth as much as people think. Do we even really know what the market is worth? It sounds like people think it’s equivalent to the market in private art, but something tells me it wouldn’t even come close. Most fossils for sale that I have seen are worth a few bucks from gem shops. Most fossils don’t even come close to selling for millions, yet that seems to be the go-to response of people criticizing the market.

            Is all research supposed to be reproducible? Don’t some paleontology studies destroy the bones in their machines? If someone witnesses and writes about a volcanic eruption in a now extinct volcano, should science writers ignore it? Obviously a call for reproducibility is reasonable, but is that reason to censor writing in paleontology when no other science seems to operate that way? Sounds like paleontologists are shooting themselves in the foot in a way no other science is doing.

          • Austin Jones

            And even if they are worth a lot of money, I don’t see how you logically go from ‘high commercial value’ to ‘You can’t even speak about those fossils’. Honestly, some of the paleontologists sound like they could be from a JK Rowling book as frightened as they are to speak about what should not be named.

          • 2 New Things

            I’m a layman here, but I think there’s concern that high prices don’t allow museums to have a shot at collecting the fossils where they can be more widely studied and verified. The high prices also drive excavation teams to just acquire more fossils to sell, rather than take the time to properly document the environment they were found in. In that possible rush, valuable information about the circumstances of the specimen’s life and death is lost forever. Incentives end up being misaligned, basically.

            Not writing about private fossils also adds some social pressure on collectors, hopefully making them weigh their purchase more carefully. They can’t take something away from the public sphere and then have it praised and studied too. That won’t bother some folks, but it might make some collectors realize they can’t have their cake and eat it too, so to speak.

          • Austin Jones

            The purchase price of a fossil is irrelevant if the museum is digging it up themselves, though. No? And like I said, I think the failed auctions of recent fossils are proof that they aren’t worth as much as people think – a good thing since it means museums can have a better chance to compete for them on the auction block. Not to keep sounding as if I’m belittling paleontologists, but I doubt there are enough professionals to dig up all of the fossils that can be found. So a financial incentive to dig up more fossils that otherwise would never have been found is only a good thing, even if (worst case scenario) only a small fraction of those newly dug fossils end up in a museum. Take that Montana dueling dinos – can you really tell me that a museum would have found those exact specimens if the amateurs had not? How on Earth would having them in the ground be a preferable situation to the current one? Also, owning fossils seems to me like a kind of quirky, unusual hobby…. Not everyone can appreciate them in the way they can appreciate various types of art. I’m sure most amateurs have museums in mind as their customers, meaning that they would have financial incentive to gather the scientific info along with the bones. Also if government sees fossils as financially valuable, they might be more likely to take note and keep them from being lost (ex. Mongolia trying to reclaim exported fossils). It might make museums higher on the list of worthwhile institutions to fund – do you think the government would be more likely to keep track of a museum holding precious gems or one holding a bunch of dusty bones that paleontologists claim have no price tag? I guess the question is: Do you think it is unethical to expect financial reward for doing something you love? Professional paleontologists do even when many people in the public might think their science is a waste of money.

            Now about the ‘not writing’ part – 1) It won’t have any effect on amateurs that don’t care about their finds being studied, so what’s the point? 2) It will only frustrate and alienate those amateurs who do want to benefit science, so whats the point? Sounds like a poorly thought out plan that is a lose-lose situation. Can you honestly think of another science that has such politics getting in the way of their science. Biologists publish on living animals in private reserves…. What if an entire Aztec city is found as far north as Wyoming (which would be a major archeological discovery), but it was found on a private ranch? Do you really think people would just ignore it the way some paleontologists are ignoring the dueling dino that might prove the existence of Nanotyrannus…. Sounds awfully convenient to ignore it on political technicalities….

          • Austin Jones

            Also does private ownership mean it is taken away from the public? What about a long established private museum (as some major museums started out as)? What about a private university, does that count as private ownership? Just because it is publicly owned doesn’t mean it can’t be lost to science (or sold) or scientists can’t be denied access. Also, “non-profits” can sometimes not amount to jack-squat in terms of what they can or can’t do. It honestly sounds more like paleontologists are terrified of the idea of private ownership without really understanding public ownership. There is nothing stopping the Smithsonian from selling their collections if the government decided to do so (and given some politicians’ anti-science and anti-evolution stances, I might trust a self-taught amateur with a fossil over many public officials)

          • Justin Varghese

            Excuse me…what are you guys talking about?

          • RationalCenter

            This is not about who owns the fossils, but about the unintended consequences of a private market. Let’s use your hypothetical Aztec city in Wyoming as an example. If the private rancher tore apart the city and sold the choice bits to private collectors, destroying the context clues and thousands of less commercially valuable artifacts in the process, he would be within his legal rights, but the scientific damage would be massive and irrecoverable. This is what is happening with the fossil market – it’s not driven by intrepid amateur fossil hunters, but by people viewing fossils as an extractive resource. They remove them from their setting, destroying critical information, and pay little heed to the damage they do to the specimens that have little commercial value. People who buy these specimens contribute to this problem, and dealing with them is somewhat akin to collaborating with a poacher in a biological study of endangered species. There are huge bands of gray in this, as no laws are broken, but it actually would be better for some of these fossils to remain in the ground, as there is at least the hope of them being studied in context in the future. Once they’re harvested by commercial collectors, that is lost forever.

  • http://elespermatozoidemesozoico.tumblr.com/ Pyroraptor

    Nice article, always great to know more about the real biggest theropod of all than overrated t-rex.
    Also, the dinosaur from that drawing is Sigilmassaurus, Spinosaurus is in the back :)
    atrox1 .deviantart .com /art/Spinosaurus-and-Sigilmassasaurus-582933358

    • Justin Varghese

      I think you have the names switched. I don’t see a Spinosaurus in the back but rather another large, carnivorous theropod. Do you know what it is?

      • http://elespermatozoidemesozoico.tumblr.com/ Pyroraptor

        that big one at the left is Spinosaurs :)!! is in the title.
        and if your refer to the ones at the back of them, they are Rugops and Carcharodontosaurus (I suppose).

  • Tarponicus

    The thing about Spinosaurus that always sticks with me, is the clawed arms and how they were used – particularly in relation to the jaws? It’s not as if they are depicted as being that close to the jaws – and the jaws themseves (as with crocodilians) seem quite capable of catching and dispatching prey on their own. All the more so if this article is correct.

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/TheSubzerogr?feature=mhee EΛ Phantomas

    JP3 shows 2 realities

    1) Spino was EXACTLY like JP3 , and

    2) T-rex ws a damn scavenger and not a hunter so the
    battle has the right end.
    Now. There’s another small ( actually HUGE) issue.

    As we know , despite that there are so many theropods bigger than
    T-REX , ……..all the movies with dinosaurs , since the beginning
    of movie history , they have ONLY T-REX as the main ”big bad guy”.

    Why is that happened ?

    Cause MAYBE…..T-REX remains found ONLY in USA ?

    Just think about ,…… further.

    After the defeat of Rexie by Spinosaurus , there is crescendo by losers around the world , to show the Spinosaurus with every fantastic INCORRECT nature !

    The ”new spinosaurus BS ”…4 legged , Pelican….
    ..Fish eater ,and many other BS.

    But lets see another thing.

    Have , ANY dinosaur fan ,ever- in his entire life ,
    thought that dinosaurs

    1) Are not NATURE’S creations ?

    2) Lived WITH HUMANS ? (Ica stones , Cambodian temple ,

    ”dragons” stories ,Mokele Mbebe )

    3) Killed by human hand ?

    I could sit for a whole day , analysing the story behind the dinosaurs…
    but time isnt with my side…..

    At least i could tell something about a Spinosaurus killed by Saint George. Yeah. The very same ”dragon” in Libya.

    Lets see the form of that ”dragon” of the story.

    There was a huge monster terrorising the territory of Silen in Libya eating HUMANS.

    Not even the army could handle this one.

    The people near Silen hiding behind the walls when the ”dragon”
    was coming.

    Its shape was :
    Crocodile head ( REALLY ? Spino has a skull lie croc )
    Wings on its back (REALLY ? Spino has ”something” like that )
    Gigantic ( Hmmm lets say…….18 meters ? )
    Long tail….(Spino also has long tail……)
    Lived near the springs of Silen .

    So by that story …..the ”dragon” doesn’t make any sense like
    pelican – fish eater – 4 legged BS !

    Oh sorry …..there something more…..

    Where the Spinosaurus bones found ?
    Morroco…Egypt…Niger…Algeria…Tunisia…and guess where else ?
    Thaaaaats right : LIBYA !

    Well……..would you look at that !

    Saint George went exactly there, cause people need help….
    and he killed the HUMAN EATER ”dragon”……

    SEARCH by YOURSELF. Do not wait ”scientists” to tell you.

    Nuff said…..

    • Stanley Rabbid

      I’m just gonna say to stop while you can, before you dig your own grave.

      • http://www.youtube.com/user/TheSubzerogr?feature=mhee EΛ Phantomas

        You said what you said clown.
        Go for sleep lika a good sheep.

  • Carcharodon

    Well, so much for the Ibrahim’s theory that it wasn’t well suited for hunting other dinosaurs. With a mouth like that, combined with the razor sharp claws and massive size, there wasn’t much an animal like that couldn’t eat. It also adds new evidence to the quadruped vs biped debate. That animal was already pretty well suited for hunting fish before this was discovered. It’s massive size, crocodile like jaw and sharp claws meant it had all the adaptations it needed to take on even the largest fish swimming in the swamps it called home. This new evidence would indicate it was more than just a simple fish eater. If the animal indeed had an ability similar to snakes and pelicans, then it probably was an opportunist that would eat whatever it could when the opportunity presented itself. Ibrahim’s reconstruction, however, would hinder such a lifestyle. An quadruped like that would have easily been able to hunt fish, but it would have been clumsy and slow on land. Why would it even need such jaws if all it eat was fish? If it also occasionally preyed on herbivores, it would have needed to be able much more efficiently on land in order to catch prey. Granted, this doesn’t disprove Ibrahim’s theory. It just adds something new to the ongoing debate.


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