The Moroccan Spinosaurus story is a remarkable one, one which could possibly eclipse even the infamous North American Tyrannosaurus rex! Quite a statement, yet think of a world-shattering discovery of a strange dinosaurian partial skeleton in 1915 by a German palaeontologist Ernest Stromer of a new type of dinosaur, this when world war one was raging on the western front, Stromer working in the Egyptian desert couldn't be more detached from the onslaught of modern warfare. Remarkable bones of a large predatory bipedal theropod dinosaur, the first to be unearthed with an enormous sail feature.
Rib like dorsal struts which Ernest Stromer theorised supported a great sail which resided mid-dorsal section on the spine of the great reptilian beast, hence the genera name Spinosaurus. These holotype bones were named the Spinosaurus genus, the holotype fossil being the first physical organism discovered of any species, The discovery which names any new genera, from which the specific genus of the animal is derived and scientifically named, the holotype discovery which is always referred back to on any subsequent discovery. This is then the standard used to determine and describe further discoveries of any other similar bones or skeleton when unearthed, it is of no small consequence to exactly how much physical evidence of any first discovery of bones is made in dinosaurs for example, which names the genera or genus, it could be as little as 20% or less or as much 80% of the skeleton recovered, that first physical specimen is perpetually referred to identify the genus within the genera of type from that point onwards.
So when in world war two the Munich museum housing the specimen was bombed by the RAF and all the holotype bones lost forever, it was a major loss to the paleontological world. It wasn't until the last decades of the twentieth century Spinosaurus sp. remains would start to be unearthed and identified as Stormers lost dinosaur and another twenty years before Spinosaurus aegypticus would be reassembled from a partial skeletal discovery in the Sahara hamada.
One may ask why the Munich museum didn't protect the bones from the bombing raids? Rather, unfortunately, Stromer was knowingly outspoken about the government of the day and the minister of culture in Germany, considered them unworthy of special treatment and prevented such provision, as a slight against Stromer and his collections housed in the museum.
Roll forward to the late twentieth century and the museum of Chicago in the guise of Paul Sereno whom had a great interest in North Africa for many years and started work unearthing dinosaurs from North Africa, from Morocco to Niger, from the deserts of these nations Sereno prised dinosaur skeletons of several types, notably Carcharodotosurus, Delta Dromeus Agilis, Suchomimus and most famously the crocodilian reptile Sarcosuchus. Sereno constantly had in his mind Spinosaurus aegypticus which seemed to evade him even through two decades of determined efforts from around 1996 to 2014 working in the field. Palaeontologists only source of reference were the detailed publications of illustrations and photographs from Stromer's expeditions and his life work on his dinosaur collections, the images of Spinosaurus aegypticus tantalised many in the scientific community involved in dinosaurs and their habitats.
Eventually, a very positive message was sent to Sereno's office of a rare Spinosaurus specimen discovery. An Italian fossil dealer had purchased a partial skeleton of what was thought to be Spinosaurus aegypticus, this had found its way to the Museo Storia Naturale di Milano. The finds were sent to Chicago. Herewith the help of Nizam Ibrahim whom recognised features in the bone linking them to similar bones he had seen with fossil merchants in Morocco, the trail was picked up as the two together with David Martill, of Portsmouth University and other international palaeontologists backtracked the course of events of the purchase and sale of the dinosaur bones to the enclave of Arfoud in southern Morocco. This is also The Fossil Stores collecting area of expertise and dealing with fossil diggers and merchants. The Fossil Store central base for the last quarter of a century, in North Africa, is among the outer lying desert regions of Erfoud.
After a very frustrating sojourn around the fossil beds, in the vast area of that region of the western desert between Morocco and Algeria no more was learnt about the bones in Italy by Sereno and his team traversing from one fossil dig or dealer to another. They were looking for information, where had the Moroc-Italiano skeleton originated from. They needed to locate the fossil horizon and be able to carry out further excavations to determine the paleo habit of the region, that was the ultimate goal. From such excavations and study, they would be able to discern much more about the lifestyle of the dinosaur, than by just studying the bones on the laboratory table.
At the last moment when all avenues had been exhausted Nizam recognised a fossil merchant, he had had dealings with and through this chance meeting the fossil merchant declared he had sold the skeleton. The dealer led the team to the place of discovery, which after many hours work between all of the palaeontologists produced more evidence of the Spinosaurus aegypticus skeleton now recently residing in the museum of Natural History Chicago. Only fragmentary pieces, a lot of broken bones and some teeth, but enough to identify that in fact, these few remains did belong to the greater part of the skeleton they had in the laboratory, which was now on temporary loan from the Natural History Museum of Morocco. Eventually, computer-generated casts in resin would be made of every bone and the original bones returned to the museum services in Morocco.
From this astounding set of discoveries, much has been learnt about Spinosaurus aegypticus. The skeleton was pieced together using the latest technology. Each bone was scanned and fed into computer programmes to create in exact detail three-dimensional replica bones, these bone replicas were orientated to fit together and work out the basic movements of the animal, through this process much was gleaned about Spinosaurs aegypticus. The skeleton was missing many bones, these were introduced into the software programme from many other sources, other museums had bits of Spinosaurus sp. maybe not all Spinosaurus aegypticus, other types of Spinosaurus were very similar, of the same family tree, until about 40% of the skeleton was created.
This gave enough of a clue to the size and frame of the Spinosaurus, which was an amazing, 50 feet in length. The size was truly astounding, making this theropod much bigger than T’rex, as had been expected. The other major predator theropod dinosaur Carcharodontosaurus from North Africa is also bigger than T’rex, however, Spinosaurus was breaking records in many different ways. As scientists studied the skeletal anatomy it became apparent this was no ordinary terrestrial dinosaur. The long snout, dorsally positioned nostrils and enlarged procumbent interlocking teeth are adapted for swimming and snaring slippery prey, like fish! The flat elongated toe-claws are similar to some seafaring birds of today and ideal for paddling. the large dorsal sail can be seen when the dinosaur may be submerged, the short femur and solid leg bones are not normally associated with a theropod dashing around terrestrially for prey. This Spinosaurus bones were not hollow to reduce weight but dense, solid bone which could be the ballast for buoyancy in water. the long snout was ideal for catching the enormous fish of the day, up to 5 feet long sawfish and large sharks, these would be more than enough of a meal for a large predatory dinosaur, on top of this a long tail which after study revealed vertebrae where able to move in a lateral motion in the same way crocodilians do. Coupled with manual unguals, claws which could easily gaff fishy prey, this dinosaur was built for fishing! So an enormous dinosaur has been discovered which would have been the top predator of its day around the watery margins and even a proactive hunter swimmer.
As Spinosaurus continues to surprise and delight in equal measure, the science explains the Spinosaurid line was developing towards a crocodilian type of dinosaur, all too sad to be extinguished toward the end of the Cretaceous period, otherwise what would have been swimming up the Nile today!
There are many influences and occurrences which play a major role in the overall outcome and extraction process's when considering the value of these Dinosaur fossils and the diminishing resource they are, in this region of the world, particularly of this unique deposition in the Continental Red beds of Kem Kem, which has been proposed as a UNESCO world heritage site. Complete undamaged teeth are limited in occurrence, it requires much work searching, digging and collecting, therefore numerous hours in the field to acquire fine examples.
Illustrated here are classic Spinosaurus teeth from a classic fossil site which is producing fewer teeth of quality, as fossil beds become overworked, re-worked and very possibly extinguished due to the finite resource of these fossils coupled with political and military unrest in the region, between two of the most powerful North African states, making collecting along the Moroccan and Algerian border exponentially problematic.