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Crocodile-faced dinosaur may have been Europe’s largest ever predator

An artist's impression of the gigantic spinosaurid, which stalked lagoonal waters and sandflats in search of prey.
An artist's impression of the gigantic spinosaurid, which stalked lagoonal waters and sandflats in search of prey. (Image credit: Anthony Hutchings)

An enormous crocodile-faced, spiny-backed dinosaur that prowled what is now England roughly 125 million years ago was one of the largest predatory animals to ever stalk across Europe. 

Paleontologists unearthed the remains of this behemoth on the Isle of Wight off the southern coast of England. The researchers nicknamed the newfound species the "White Rock spinosaurid," after the chalky geological layer found on the island where it was discovered. As the scientists unearthed only pieces of fossils, the animal has yet to be given an official scientific name.

The fragments are the youngest spinosaurid fossils ever found in the U.K., according to a new study, published June 9 in the journal PeerJ Life and Environment. Spinosaurids were bipedal carnivorous dinosaurs with crocodile-like skulls, slender necks and sturdy arms, and they lived during the Cretaceous period (145 million to 66 million years ago). The new species is a close relative of the older, potentially amphibious Spinosaurus, which was bigger than Tyrannosaurus rex and had a large, flattened sail extending from its back. 

Related: Cretaceous dinosaurs come to life in stunning footage from 'Prehistoric Planet' 

Spinosaurids are somewhat mysterious as few fossils of the group have been discovered. Scientists suspect that the creatures hunted in lakes, rivers and lagoons, but how they captured their quarry is a subject of debate. Some paleontologists have proposed that spinosaurids actively swam after their prey (opens in new tab), propelling themselves by swishing their large tails as modern crocodiles do. Other experts suggest the monsters behaved more like herons, wading the lagoons and jabbing their long jaws into the water to snatch up fish. Either way, the creatures were enormous, and the newly discovered White Rock spinosaurid was among the biggest. 

''This was a huge animal, exceeding 10m [33 feet] in length, and judging from some of the dimensions, [it] probably represents the largest predatory dinosaur ever found in Europe,'' study lead author Chris Barker, a paleontologist at the University of Southampton in England, said in a statement. ''It’s just a shame it’s only known from such scant material.''

Researchers uncovered the ancient monster’s fossils, including gigantic pelvic and tail vertebrae, inside Cretaceous rocks near Compton Chine, a geological feature along the Isle of Wight’s southwestern coast. The fossils were preserved in a rocky structure known as the Vectis Formation, which began to form 125 million years ago when deposits from rising sea levels entered the site of a freshwater coastal lagoon. It was across these lagoonal waters and sandflats that the White Rock spinosaurid roamed in search of prey, the study authors reported.

This isn’t the first spinosaurid these researchers have discovered on the Isle of Wight. In 2021, the team described two new spinosaurid species —   the "riverbank hunter" Riparovenator milnerae and the "hell heron" Ceratosuchops inferodios — Live Science previously reported. The riverbank hunter and hell heron were slighter smaller than their White Rock spinosaurid cousin, reaching about  29.5 feet (9 meters) long. These three discoveries bring the tally of spinosaurids discovered in the U.K. to four — the other one being the fearsomely clawed Baryonyx.

The researchers say that the discovery of the White Rock spinosaurid bolsters their claim, first made when they described the previous two spinosaurid species, that this group of dinosaurs may have initially evolved in Europe before spreading across Asia and the supercontinent Gondwana, which later split into Africa and South America.

The gigantic dinosaur may have been Europe’s biggest land predator, but it also ended up as something else's dinner. Marks on the bones suggest that the giant’s carcass was picked over by other hungry Cretaceous beasties.

"Most of these amazing fossils were found by Nick Chase, one of Britain’s most skilled dinosaur hunters, who sadly died just before the COVID epidemic," study co-author Jeremy Lockwood, a paleontologist at the University of Portsmouth, said in the statement. "I was searching for remains of this dinosaur with Nick and found a lump of pelvis with tunnels bored into it, each about the size of my index finger. We think they were caused by bone eating larvae or a type of scavenging beetle. It’s an interesting thought that this giant killer wound up becoming a meal for a host of insects."

The researchers hope to learn more about the fallen giant by taking thin sections of its bones and studying them under the microscope. This should enable them to learn more about how fast the spinosaurid grew and how old it may have been when it died, the study authors said.

Originally published on Live Science.

Ben Turner
Ben Turner

Ben Turner is a U.K. based staff writer at Live Science. He covers physics and astronomy, among other topics like tech and climate change. He graduated from University College London with a degree in particle physics before training as a journalist. When he's not writing, Ben enjoys reading literature, playing the guitar and embarrassing himself with chess.