| 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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