Fish-eating dinosaur discovered

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SCIENTISTS HAVE discovered a species of dinosaur that was armed with a pair of thumb claws the size and shape of giant meathooks. It was one of the largest carnivores to stalk the land.

An almost complete skeleton of the fish-eating dinosaur has been found in fossil beds of the Tenere Desert in central Niger. The fossil shows the living animal must have rivalled the largest carnivore, Tyrannosaurus rex, in size and ferocity. The new species is identified as a member of a group of piscivores, the spinosaurids, which had long, narrow jaws studded with cone-shaped teeth and a sail-like fin running down their backs.

Suchomimus tenerensis, named after its crocodile-like skull and the place where it was found, stood on its hind legs and was about 36ft long. An average-sized man would have stood at the level of the dinosaur's thigh.

A narrow snout might have allowed the dinosaur to swim faster through water and its pointed, cone-shaped teeth would have enabled it to pierce and grasp its prey rather than slice it - just as a crocodile's teeth are for holding rather than chewing and killing.

Oliver Rauhut, a postgraduate student from the University of Bristol who was part of the research team, said: "We don't really know how it lived, but the suggestion is that it ate fish, which is very possible.

"The largest claw we found measured 14in along the outer curve. They look like very nice weapons, and the fore limbs are very strong. They're just too powerful for fishing. It's possible they were used for hunting slightly larger prey or slicing up carcasses."

The team leader, Paul Sereno, a palaeontologist at the University of Chicago, who describes the dinosaur in this week's Science journal, said the discovery is one of the most significant in the work leading to understanding how dinosaurs spread around the world.

The dinosaur was found in a region that was covered by swampy forests in the Cretaceous period, about 120 million years ago, when Africa and South America were merged in a single continent, Gondwanaland, separated from a giant northern continent, Laurasia, by the ancient Tethyan seaway.

"We had been looking for really excellent fossils, not just of dinosaurs but of other organisms as well. This finding will add significant information to the idea that there was traffic across the Tethys seaway during the Cretaceous period. We are trying to understand evolution in a fragmenting world," Professor Sereno said.

Spinosaurids are members of the same two-legged family of dinosaurs, the theropods, that included Velociraptor and T. rex. One of its closest relatives was Baryonyx, a fish-eating dinosaur living in the region that is now northern Europe.

Suchomimus appears to be more closely related to Baryonyx than to its southern spinosaurids found in Egypt and Brazil, suggesting there may have been mass movement of dinosaurs from the north to the south.