Was The Prehistoric Penguin An Apex Predator?

Skeleton comparison of spinosaurus aegyptiacus and typical penguin
Skeleton comparison of spinosaurus aegyptiacus and typical penguin

By Scott A. Rowan

The penguin thrashed the shark, eating most of it whole, but it was still hungry. So it left the ocean waters covering modern day Libya and northern Niger, walked on land and looked to eat, well, just about anything it wanted. Even the infamous Tyrannosaurus Rex was not going to battle the ancient penguin when it was hungry. The T-Rex was no fool: this opponent was bigger, stronger, faster, and as comfortable on land as it was in the water; unlike the T-Rex, who could only hunt on land.

According to recent discoveries, the spinosaurus aegyptiacus was not only the largest prehistoric dinosaur, but is now believed to be the first aquatic dinosaur ever identified. Animal fans may have fallen in love with Mumble in Disney’s “Happy Feet”, but groundbreaking information revealed by an international research team led by Nizar Ibrahim and Paul Sereno from the University of Chicago claim that the most feared dinosaur was not the smaller T-Rex, but spinosaurus, and it was the ancient ancestor to today’s penguins.

“Working on this animal was like studying an alien from outer space,” Ibrahim told the National Geographic recently, “it’s unlike any other dinosaur I have ever seen.”

The largest T-Rex ever discovered measures approximately 9 feet shorter than the spinosaurus aegyptiacus (which means “spine lizard of Egypt”).

Contemporary penguins are a far cry from their fearsome Cretaceous-era relatives, ranging from 16 inches tall (0.41m) to nearly 4 feet tall (3.7 in, 1.1m). Typical birds have hollow bones, allowing them to fly. The bones of penguins are more similar to humans, dense and solid, preventing any flight. But flying isn’t necessary for penguins, who live the majority of their time in water, feeding on small fish, shrimp, krill and squid. Unlike the spinosaurus, whose remains were discovered in the Moroccan Sahara, penguins exist solely in the Southern Hemisphere, with the highest populations in Antarctica and its surrounding waters, but roaming as far north as the Galapagos Islands, South Africa and Australia.

Ibrahim and Sereno were joined by two experts from the National History Museum in Milan, Italy (Cristiano Dal Sasso, Simone Maganuco) and Samir Zouhri from Morocco’s Université Hassan II Casablanca. Among the ground-breaking discoveries the international team unearthed about spinosaurus were a slew of aquatic adaptations that the experts claim show it was the most dominant creature roaming earth approximately 95 million years ago:

• Crocodilian-like snout that protruded forward with sensory organs at the tip (neurovascular openings) to detect prey and a mouth filled with interlocking teeth that secured any prey once it was caught

• Nostrils located at back of skull, allowing it breathe with most of its head submerged, again, very crocodilian-like

• Long, muscular tail with loosely-connected bones, powered by thick thighs and a smaller pelvis which helped propel it in water, along with long-boned feet that are believed to have been webbed, further aiding its swimming ability

Not all experts agree with the recent findings though. The spinosaurus’ long neck helped capture prey, but it also would have moved its center of gravity forward, which would make walking on two legs difficult, if not impossible. However, that would support the assertion that this was, indeed, an aquatic predator.

“The rivers in the land of Spinosaurus were small and undoubtedly shallow,” claimed Ken Carpenter, director of paleontology at the Prehistoric Museum located at Utah State University Eastern.

Skeletal evidence reveals a similarity to the penguin of today and the spinosaurus, yet the large, predatory traits revealed recently paint a picture of an animal more like a combination penguin-crocodile. Though, anyone who has seen a penguin walking on land would agree it is a modern animal that sure doesn’t seem to have evolved to spend much time out of the water, where its torpedo shape, dense bones and thick muscles make it a very agile swimmer.

Which is precisely the point Ibrahim and his colleagues made with their new discoveries: spinosaurus, like penguins, spent little time on land, instead it ruled the waters that once flooded Africa. But when it did venture on land, it was the apex predator.

“It wouldn’t have been fast on land,” Serrano said, “but you would not want to encounter this animal.”

The findings, which were published in Science magazine in September 2014, created a new perspective of history that may lead to more questions, than answers. Which, according to one expert, is the coolest part.

“[These findings] took this dinosaur that we already knew was weird and made it even weirder,” paleontologist Matthew Lamanna of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, said to USA Today about his peers’ paper. “It’s the kind of thing that makes you feel like a kid again.”




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