Spinosaurus Aegyptiacus: The Nile's Oldest Mystery
by Hunter C. Eden
When we think of Egypt, we think in terms of ancient humanity: Pharoahs, the Sphinx, Alexander the Great, pyramids, and mummies. But millions of years before mankind appeared, this was a land rich in interesting, unique, and mysterious inhabitants. And few of them were quite as strange and fascinating as the gigantic carnivorous dinosaur named
Heavier and longer than Tyrannosaurus Rex, its back crowned with the distinctive sail that gave it the scientific name, "The Egyptian Spine-Lizard," Spinosaurus was surely one of the greatest predators in earth's history--and one of the least understood. First discovered in Egypt's Bahariya Formation, it lived during the North African mid-Cretaceous, specifically the Albian and Cenomanian ages. Beyond that, little is known of Spinosaurus, and from its exact diet to the function of its sail, paleontologists have yet to come to a conclusive agreement--even after a century of debate.
No other name is quite so closely connected with that of
as that of Ernst Stromer, the pioneering German paleontologist who first described the species in 1915. To Stromer,
was the sphinx-like symbol of an ancient world that made no sense: while gathering fossils in North Africa, he discovered many carnivorous dinosaurs, but not many herbivores. Without large, grazing dinosaurs to prey upon, where could a meat-eater as big as this odd, sail-backed monster get enough food to survive? Later scientists came to call the problem "Stromer's Riddle" in his honor.
Stromer's original, incomplete find.
Stromer took the fossils (the incomplete remains of two individuals) back to his native Germany, where they ended up in storage in Munich--a city hit badly by Allied bombing raids in the second World War. Sadly, Stromer was alive to see the destruction; due to his strong opposition to Hitler's regime, his Nazi supervisors would not allow the fossils to be moved to a safer location.
The solution to his riddle--and a better understanding of the kind of creature
probably was--would have to wait almost a century. This time, a North African would provide the answers.
Nizar Ibrahim, a German paleontologist of Moroccan descent currently teaching at the University of Chicago, was able to discover a much more complete specimen of
Spinosaurus by working with Bedouin fossil-hunters in Morocco. The Kem Kem fossil beds, known to locals for generations, turned up enough fossil evidence to allow Ibrahim to propose that the reason Stromer found so few large plant-eaters in North Africa was because local carnivorous dinosaurs like
Spinosaurus didn't usually prey on them.
Spinosaurus wasn't a hunter like
T. Rex, but a fish-eater.
Spinosaurus has many features to support Ibrahim's conclusion: its crocodile-like jaws lack the bulk and power of those of the tyrannosaurs, and its forelegs were much more substantial, perhaps built for swimming. The large sail may have have acted like the dorsal fin of a shark or dolphin, increasing
Spinosaurus's speed and control in the water. And Kem Kem has an abundance of fossil fish--many of giant size. The mass extinction of sea-life at the Cenomanian-Turonian boundary may also be the reason
Spinosaurus went extinct. Without fish to sustain it, it starved.
The crocodile-like head of
But while Ibrahim's hypothesis may have solved the century-old mystery of
Spinosaurus and the long-vanished world it ruled, there remains the possibility that our awareness of this fascinating animal goes much farther back than Ernst Stromer.
Adrienne Mayor, a historian with Stanford University, has suggested that many of the monsters of world mythology were really attempts to explain fossils found by ancient people. The eagle-headed, lion-bodied griffin was perhaps inspired by the beaked skull of
Protoceratops, a smaller, hornless relative of more famous horned dinosaurs like
Triceratops. The one-eyed, man-eating cyclops may have been an attempt by early sailors to explain the skulls of extinct pygmy elephants found on Malta, with the trunk socket mistaken for a single, large eye.
The Bedouins who directed Nizar Ibrahim to Kem Kem were almost certainly not the first North Africans to find
Spinosaurus fossils. Could the ancient Egyptians, who certainly did their share of digging, have found its bones, and if so, to what sort of monster did they attribute them?
In Pharaonic belief, the souls of the dead faced a moral trial before they were allowed entry into the afterlife. The heart of every dead Egyptian was weighed by the jackal-headed god Anubis against the feather of truth, Maat. If the heart was lighter than the feather, the soul was allowed to go on to the afterlife. If evil weighed the heart down, it was fed to the monster Ammut.
Ammut, the Pharaonic devourer of souls. Spinosaurus by a different name?
Ammut, who combines the head of a crocodile with the forepaws of a leopard and a hippo's rear legs, certainly looks little like modern depictions of
Spinosaurus. But when a quarry foreman on the ancient Nile saw pieces of a creature with a long, crocodile-like skull, claws, and thick rear leg-bones discovered by his workers (the sail long destroyed), how might he reconstruct the living animal in his mind?
Could the Egyptians have provided their own answer to Stromer's Riddle thousands of years before he thought to ask it?