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And now an introduction to Spinosaurus. There was once a place on earth so overrun with giant meat-eating predators that even Tyrannosaurus Rex would've been nervous. Predators that were even bigger than T-Rex. And scientists say it's apparently the only aquatic dinosaur ever found. NPR's Christopher Joyce reports on the unveiling of this swimming monster.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Spinosaurus was 50 feet long, longer than a school bus. Nine feet longer than the biggest T-Rex. A replica of its skeleton is being assembled in a cavernous room at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. As workmen finish erecting the exhibit, paleontologist Nizar Ibrahim, from the University of Chicago, describes the place in North Africa where Spinosaurus lived 97 million years ago.
NIZAR IBRAHIM: I call it the river of giants with big predatory dinosaurs, giant fish, crocodile-like predators. In fact, the place is really pretty predator heavy, so I call it the most dangerous place in the history of our planet.
JOYCE: It was swampy, with many rivers. Now it's a desert, where Ibrahim looks for dinosaur bones. But he didn't find Spinosaurus's bones exactly, they found him. We'll get to that story in a minute. But first, you've got to see this immense skeleton. It takes up most of the room. Its jaw is long with interlocking front teeth like a crocodiles. Good for catching fish - very big fish. Then there are the pits in its jawbones.
IBRAHIM: These openings house pressure receptors to detect movement of prey underwater.
JOYCE: Its nostrils are back near its eyes, better for breathing while half-submerged. It has a long serpentine neck, its front legs tipped with foot-long claws.
IBRAHIM: Probably used to tear apart prey into bite-size chunks.
JOYCE: Along its back, seven-foot tall bony spines stick up like a picket fence. In life, they supported an enormous, sail-like crest. And the hips and back legs - they're narrow and small for all that weight. On land, Spinosaurus probably shuffled on all fours. This was a creature made for swimming. Ibrahim describes all this in The Journal of Science. Now, there were big swimming reptiles in prehistoric times, but no swimming dinosaurs until this one turned up. In fact, Spinosaurus bones were first discovered 100 years ago by a German paleontologist in Egypt. Scientists were puzzled by them. Thomas Holtz, a paleontologist at the University of Maryland, explains why.
THOMAS HOLTZ: A lot of the skeleton was missing. And it was sort of a mystery dinosaur. And the mystery was furthered when all the specimens were destroyed during World War II.
JOYCE: They'd been in a museum in Munich that was bombed by Allied planes. Scientists were left with drawings and over time, a few more bones from Africa. Until now, they'd speculated that this creature lived on land and snagged fish out of rivers like a giant heron with teeth.
HOLTZ: But we were wrong. And it just goes to show that, you know, evolution's pretty tricky. And it does all sorts of weird and wonderful things.
JOYCE: But no more weird and wonderful than the way Ibrahim found this specimen. It started in 2008 in Morocco. A local fossil hunter showed him an odd chunk of bone - a dinosaur bone, but one that puzzled him. He didn't make much of it. Then several years later, he was visiting colleagues at a museum in Italy.
IBRAHIM: My Italian colleagues said we have something that you have to see. It just arrived here, it's a partial skeleton and it was spirited out of North Africa. We don't know really know where it came from.
JOYCE: He looked at the bones.
IBRAHIM: My jaw just dropped. They were just long spines, skull bones, leg bones. And I thought this is amazing. And I saw something very familiar. It looked exactly like that chunk of bone I had seen in Morocco several years earlier. And I thought, you know what? This could actually be the same skeleton. And so I thought, you know, all you need to do now is travel back to Morocco and find this one man in the middle of the Sahara desert.
JOYCE: If he could find that fossil hunter, maybe he could find the rest of the bones. Ibrahim searched for him - no luck. He didn't even know his name, only that he had a mustache. Then, last year, he was drinking a cup of mint tea in a Moroccan cafe. He was ready to quit. He looked up and there was a man dressed in white, walking by with a mustache - the fossil hunter. The man agreed to drive Ibrahim into the desert to a hole dug in a mountainside. And there was the rest of the dinosaur skeleton. Scientists now know what the real Spinosaurus looked like and that it swam. The Moroccan and Italian bones have been reunited and will go back to Morocco. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.
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