Arizonasaurus vs Spinosaurus

Two unrelated reptiles
evolved similar morphologies, Arizonasaurus and Spinosaurus (Fig. 1), a long rostrum filled with sharp teeth, a bipedal configuration and enormous neural spine arising from the dorsal vertebrae. One was a giant. The other about waist high. Seen here together for the first time…

Figure 1. Spinosaurus and Arizonsaurus, together for the first time. The similarities are obvious and intriguing.

Figure 1. Spinosaurus and Arizonsaurus, together for the first time. The similarities are obvious and intriguing. Spinosaurus courtesy of Scott Hartmann.

Spinosaurus is a famous giant theropod dinosaur. Arizonasaurus is none of these things. It’s a member of a clade that has no name, but arose from basal rauisuchids, like Venjukovia. It was a sister to Ticinosuchus + Aetosaurs and Yarasuchus + Qianosuchus, none of which have much of a sail back. I thought comparing these two might provide clues to their convergent looks.

Arizonasaurus comes from the Middle Triassic Moenkoepi Formation, which included fresh water and a diverse fauna. Earlier we looked at the possibility that this predator was bipedal, based on the very small pectoral girdle and very deep (for its time) pelvic girdle, almost like that of T-rex, but more gracile. Relatives include fish eaters, like long-necked Yarasuchus and plant eaters, like aetosaurs. So this is already a diverse clade that no doubt will provide many surprising morphologies in the future. Originally described as a prestosuchid rauisuchian, Brusatte et al. (2010) nested it with poposaurs. In the large reptile tree poposaurs nest a little closer to dinosaurs and basal crocs.

Spinosaurus comes from the Middle Cretaceous of northern Africa, which, at the time included tidal flats, mangrove forests and several other giant theropods. Only a few other dinosaurs had such long neural spines. The question is, where they more like sails, and aid in thermoregulation? Or did they support a buffalo-like hump of fat? Spinosaur relatives, all smaller, did not sport much of a sail back. So whatever its utility was, it was unique.

Sail backs seem to spring up occasionally and quickly around the reptile family tree. They never seem to last.

Moving on
to those long jaws, Spinosaurus was considered a quick-strike artist, feeding on everything from fish to small dinosaurs, but with that size it could have taken on any prey. No such claims have been made for Arizonasaurus, perhaps because not much of the skull is known. But the teeth were sharp

My take
I have no expertise and no stake in the hump vs. sail argument. Since these sails seem to come and go rather quickly, my opinion is they are literally a flash in the pan, thus they have no real utility and are only for show… secondary sexual traits. Popular one day, not so popular the next. The blessing probably becomes a curse over time, as the sail gets bigger, so the trait and the animal disappears. The neural spines are broad because they have “roots” that are broad, unlike Dimetrodon and like Sphenacodon.

Bailey JB 1997. Neural spine elongation in dinosaurs: sailbacks or buffalo-backs?. Journal of Paleontology 71 (6): 1124–1146.
Butler RJ, Brusatte SL, Reich M, Nesbitt SJ, Schoch RR, et al. 2011. The Sail-Backed Reptile Ctenosauriscus from the Latest Early Triassic of Germany and the Timing and Biogeography of the Early Archosaur Radiation. PLoS ONE 6(10): e25693. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0025693 Plos One paper
Nesbitt SJ 2003. Arizonasaurus and its implications for archosaur divergence. Proceedings of the Royal Society, London B (Suppl.) 270, S234–S237. DOI 10.1098/rsbl.2003.0066
Nesbitt SJ, Liu J and Li C 2010. A sail-backed suchian from the Heshanggou Formation (Early Triassic: Olenekian) of China. Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 101 (Special Issue 3-4):271-284.
Welles SP 1947 Vertebrates from the Upper Moenkopi Formation of the Northern Arizona. Univ. California Publ. Geol. Sci. 27, 241–294.
Wu X-C 1981. The discovery of a new thecodont from north east Shanxi. Vertebrata PalAsiatica 19: 122–132.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.