SCIENCE: The Spinosaurus is scarier than we thought

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National Geographic
TODAY'S BIG TOPIC:
THE MONSTER COULD SWIM
Wednesday, April 29, 2020
A model of the Cretaceous predator Spinosaurus gets rock star treatment at a photo shoot.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MIKE HETTWER
By Victoria Jaggard, SCIENCE Executive Editor

Growing up on a steady diet of science fiction, I’ve come to appreciate the fine line creators have to draw between being interesting and being accurate. Movies can be fun even if the science isn’t totally flawless (as an astronomy fan, arguably my most controversial opinion is that Gravity was a better movie than Interstellar—don’t @ me). But sometimes, scientific consensus is so overwhelming, movies start to seem weird when they don’t adapt. Case in point: the Jurassic Park franchise, which after five films spanning 27 years still won’t put feathers on its dinosaurs.

Now, there’s something else the creative team could update if they decided to embrace the challenge. Spinosaurus (above), the main movie monster in Jurassic Park III, just got a scientific makeover.

Like its prehistoric kin in the movie franchise, the fictional Spinosaurus was presumably brought back from extinction using DNA recovered from fossils. In real life, though, it’s remarkable how little material we’ve had to work with when reconstructing this popular dinosaur species. The original fossil, discovered in Egypt in the 1930s, was blown to bits during World War II, leaving only some highly detailed notes and sketches as a record of the find. In the years afterward, paleontologists found just a couple snouts, a few partial teeth, and some skull fragments.

It wasn’t until 2014 that a more complete Spino skeleton emerged from the Moroccan desert, at last revealing some key details that suggest how the animal likely lived. The resulting description suggested that Spinosaurus–a predatory theropod bigger than a T. rex—was the first known swimming dinosaur. The idea was instantly controversial, since until then, all known dinosaurs were land dwellers.

But new fossil material revealed today may seal the deal; the extraordinary bones show for the first time that this sail-backed dinosaur also had a tail shaped like a paddle, which would have undulated like an eel gliding through the waves. “This tail is unambiguous,” paleontologist and team member Samir Zouhri tells Nat Geo’s Michael Greshko. “This dinosaur was swimming.”

(Here's a graphic that shows how the dino's amazing tail worked.)

There’s still a lot paleontologists need to do to unravel how much time Spinosaurus spent in water versus on land, and exactly how it moved through its submerged ecosystem. I just hope movie-makers are paying attention, because for my money, inspiration for the next big dino-fight doesn’t get much more terrifying than a hungry river monster on the prowl.

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MAKING OF A MONSTER
PHOTOGRAPH BY PAOLO VERZONE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Not enough on the Spinosaurus? A huge magazine article for us was this 2014 in-depth profile of the biggest, baddest predator to walk the earth. I mean, the Spinosaurus makes T. rex look like a runt. (Above, a look at the current modeling efforts, starting with the tail that guided it while swimming and hunting).

Subscriber exclusive: Move over, T. rex: Meet the Spinosaurus

YOUR INSTAGRAM PHOTO OF THE DAY
PHOTOGRAPH BY @BABAKTAFRESHI
Moonset: A crescent moon sets behind a cumulus cloud. Photographer Babak Tafreshi captured this image from the 10,023-foot-high peak of Haleakala volcano on Maui, Hawaii.

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TODAY IN A MINUTE
Mask culture is changing: Humans become frustrated when they can’t read facial clues. In many countries, people are also unaccustomed to wearing masks to protect themselves from the pandemic, or they feel self-conscious if others aren’t wearing masks. More and more, however, mask-wearing is being seen as caring toward others, as well as protective of oneself, writes Nat Geo’s Alejandra Borunda.

New tactics: Young climate activists are changing their approach in this world of quarantines, going digital and traveling less. For a generation that will surely be defined by the dual catastrophes of climate change and COVID-19, some of the activists hope that these unprecedented events will ultimately change our polarized world, and “science, scientists, and scientific facts” will come back into fashion, writes Nat Geo’s Laura Parker.

Fatal meteorite strike: Letters found in the Turkish state archives provide the first documented case of death by a meteor, Science reports. The piece of the meteor struck the Earth in 1888, killing a farmer in present-day Iraq and paralyzing another. The strike was documented by three letters, including one that supposedly contained a piece of the meteor.

Move the asteroid: NASA's new mission is to crash a spacecraft into an asteroid to see if this technique can be used to safely divert space rocks from the planet’s path. The asteroid in question poses no immediate threat, NASA says, but it swings close enough to Earth to be classified as “potentially hazardous,” writes Nadia Drake for Nat Geo.

Good news for whales: Drastically less shipping since the pandemic began has resulted in quieter seas, researchers say. The temporary change is beneficial to marine mammals, and the scientists who study them, the Guardian reports. “We have an opportunity to listen—and that opportunity to listen will not appear again in our lifetime,” says Michelle Fournet, a marine acoustician at Cornell University, who studies humpback whales off southeastern Alaska.

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NIAID
THIS WEEK IN THE NIGHT SKY
ILLUSTRATION BY ANDREW FAZEKAS
Watch the moon buzz the Beehive: As an observing challenge late on Thursday and Friday nights, look for the waxing quarter moon to point the way to the famous Beehive open star cluster in the constellation Cancer, the crab. Ancient Greek poet Aratos first mentioned this beautiful group of stars back in 260 B.C., referring to it as the Little Mist. The cluster is visible as a faint, fuzzy patch to the naked eye under dark skies, and suburban sky-watchers can hunt it down easily using either binoculars or small telescopes. Binoculars will show both the moon and star cluster within the same field of view, but don’t let their apparent proximity fool you. While the moon lies only 1.2 light-seconds from Earth, the thousands of stars that make up the Beehive cluster sit nearly 600 light-years distant. — Andrew Fazekas
THE BIG TAKEAWAY
Face mites. They're on your face right now.
ILLUSTRATION BY ARMANDO VEVE
Our closest companions: Right now, your face has hundreds or thousands of mites on it. So do the faces of everyone you love. Erika Englehaupt tracks down these tiny, light-sensitive arachnids, related to spiders or ticks, that are crawling around your nose, mouth, eyebrows, and ears. With a microscope, on assignment for Nat Geo, she even looks at the mites on her face. It’s grossly fascinating.

Subscriber exclusive: What’s living on our face?

IN A FEW WORDS
QUOTE
“We can’t say they were snatched from a single star. They could have been snatched from different stars at different times.”
Fathi Namouni
Astronomer, from “A Nest of Alien Asteroids Orbits Our Sun”
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THE LAST GLIMPSE
PHOTOGRAPH BY ALEXIS ROSENFELD, GETTY IMAGES
Zoom fatigue is a thing: Blame evolution. Humans are wired to look for social cues on these video conference calls that have become ubiquitous under quarantine, but we’re limited in what we can see and express, writes Julia Sklar for Nat Geo. “It's almost like you're emoting more because you're just a little box on a screen,” says Lehigh religion studies prof Jodi Eichler-Levine. “I’m just so tired.” On audio calls, the expectations are lower, and the brain can relax.

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, with photo selections by Jen Tse and Eslah Attar. Have an idea or a link? We'd love to hear from you at david.beard@natgeo.com. Thanks for reading, and stay safe.

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