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New Spinosaurus fossil proves the villain of Jurassic Park III could indeed swim

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Apr 29, 2020, 8:56 PM EDT (Updated)

Jurassic Park III isn't exactly well-regarded by fans or critics, but it sure was way ahead of its time in terms of presenting accurate dino-behavior. Spinosaurus aegyptiacus, aka the dreaded, spine-backed antagonist from the 2001 film, is now considered to be the first dinosaur that was able to live underwater. This scientific discovery (supported by a grant from the National Geographic Society) comes to us via a tail fossil unearthed by a team of international scientists digging in the Moroccan desert.

"This dinosaur has a tail with an unexpected and unique shape that consists of extremely tall neural spines and elongate chevrons, which forms a large, flexible fin-like organ capable of extensive lateral excursion," reads the abstract of the study published by Nature.com.

That's just a real fancy way of saying that the animal's tail was more suited to water than it was to land. Through the use of "a robotic flapping apparatus," the researchers were able "to measure undulatory forces in physical models of different tail shapes." This led to the conclusion that the Spinosaurus had a "greater thrust and efficiency in water than the tail shapes of terrestrial dinosaurs."

The hope is to use the fondly-named "Flapper" device in future experiments that may shed some light on the purpose of the dinosaur's characteristic sail. Over the years, academics have posited different theories, the most predominant of which state that the sail probably helped with movement in water and/or the absorption of sunlight.

Two Spinosaurus hunt Onchopristis, a prehistoric sawfish, in the waters of the Kem Kem river system in what is now Morocco. (Jason Treat, NG Staff, and Mesa Schumacher / Art: Davide Bonadonna / Source: Nizar Ibrahim, University of Detroit Mercy)

Dr. David Unwin, co-author of the paper and professor at the University of Leicester, described the predatory Spinosaurus as a straight-up "river monster." Awesome!

"The Spinosaurus’ fin-like tail is a game changing discovery for us that fundamentally alters our understanding of how this dinosaur lived and hunted," he said in a statement to the college. "As well as its tail, many other features of this dinosaur, such as the high position of the nostrils, heavy bones, short legs, and paddle-like feet point to a life spent in the water rather than on land."

Until today, it was widely accepted that dinosaurs lived exclusively on land. The archaeological remnants were discovered in North Africa's Kem Kem Beds, a famous deposit of biological remains from the Cretaceous period. Led by National Geographic Explorer Dr. Nizar Ibrahim (who is also a paleontologist for the University of Detroit Mercy), the excavation began in Morocco in 2015, with the discovery arriving three years later in 2018.

Guzun Ion molding the tail of the flesh model of Spinosaurus. (Paolo Verzone/National Geographic)

“This discovery is the nail in the coffin for the idea that non-avian dinosaurs never invaded the aquatic realm," Ibrahim said. “This dinosaur was actively pursuing prey in the water column, not just standing in shallow waters waiting for fish to swim by. It probably spent most of its life in the water.”

Despite the enormity of the breakthrough, David Martill, another member of the party and a Professor of Palaeobiology at the University of Portsmouth, is still left with some big, dinosaur-sized questions.

“One thing that still puzzles me though, is why only Spinosaurus became aquatic among the dinosaurs," he said. "Why are there no aquatic iguanodons, or stegosaurs?"

Alan Grant may have some theories, but he won't be back to school us in prehistory until Jurassic World: Dominion arrives in theaters next summer. For more on this discovery, visit natgeo.com.


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