An artist's impression of the spinosaur Vallibonavenatrix cani.

Another spinosaur, Vallibonavenatrix cani, was found in the same formation as Protathlitis, suggesting they could have lived side by side. Image © PaleoGeekSquared, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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New species of spinosaur suggests the dinosaurs co-existed in western Europe

A new species of Spanish spinosaur is helping to reveal more about the origins of the dinosaur group.

The newly described Protathlitis cinctorrensis is the latest to be discovered in Spain, adding to the evidence that spinosaurs first evolved in Europe.

A football team's newest fan is over 125 million years old.

Spanish researchers have named a new dinosaur species in honour of the football team Villarreal C.F. Named Protathlitis cinctorrensis, the first half translates as 'champion' in Greek in recognition of the club's Europa League win in 2021, while the second half honours the town of Cinctorres near to where the spinosaur was found.

Dr Andrés Santos‑Cubedo, the lead author of the paper describing the species, says, 'Three of the authors of this paper live in Villarreal, and with the club's centenary this year, we wanted to recognise its work both on and off the pitch by naming a dinosaur genus after it.'

This new species is adding to our understanding of how these large, carnivorous dinosaurs evolved. Cassius Morrison, a PhD student at the Museum who studies spinosaurs, says, 'Spain and Portugal have been a recent hotspot for spinosaur discoveries, with three having been described from this region before this paper.'

'Protathlitis cinctorrensis helps to cement the idea that these dinosaurs originated in western Europe.'

The findings of the study were published in Scientific Reports.

Scientists dig under a green canopy in a quarry at the ANA fossiliferous site.

The fossils of the new dinosaur are among hundreds recovered from the ANA fossiliferous site. Image © Grup Guix.

The discovery of Protathlitis cinctorrensis

The fossils of Protathlitis were discovered in a group of rocks known as the Arcillas de Morella Formation. This formation, located in eastern Spain, is known for containing fossils of Iguanodon and its relatives as well as titanosaur-like dinosaurs. 

One area that has been of particular interest to scientists is the ANA fossiliferous site. Since being discovered in 1998, over 500 fossils from a range of vertebrate and invertebrate species have been excavated, and Protathlitis is one of the most recent.

Its type specimen, which is used to represent the species, consists of five vertebrae from the animal's tail, as well as part of its upper jaw. A tooth previously found at the site has also been reclassified as belonging to this dinosaur.

The shape of the jaw and the teeth were similar to other spinosaurs, which would have allowed them to feed on fish along the coastline of what is now Spain.

'The spinosaurs are quite special theropods,' Cassius says. 'They ate fish and lived in and around water, but there's a lot of debate about just how aquatic they were.'

'Some scientists suggest they were like herons, snapping up fish while wading, while others think they were more like a penguin, and could move underwater to hunt fish. Suchomimus seems to be more like a heron, while Baryonyx and Spinosaurus had higher bone density which might mean they could have spent time underwater.'

Just how aquatic these dinosaurs were, and if they swam, continues to cause controversy among palaeontologists. The discovery of Protathlitis adds more evidence to this puzzle, allowing researchers to get a better understanding of the spinosaurs.

A mounted Baryonyx specimen.

The spinosaur Baryonyx has dense bones, which some scientists have used as evidence that it might have hunted underwater. Image © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London, All Rights Reserved.

Revealing more about early spinosaurs

Because fossils of spinosaurs are often incomplete, the discovery of any new material can offer new insights about the group.

'Spinosaurs are notoriously fragmentary, and these dinosaurs remain a very tantalising and mysterious group, ' Cassius says. 'Their fossils may be so fragmentary because of the environment they were buried in.'

'Spinosaurs such as the Isle of Wight's Ceratosuchops and north Africa's Spinosaurus may be broken up because they were deposited in a semi-arid flood plains or deltas. Meanwhile, one of the best preserved spinosaurs, Baryonyx, was buried in a swampy environment with very still water that would have helped its fossils survive.'

While Protathlitis fossils aren't as complete as Baryonyx, a number of similarities between them suggest the dinosaurs would have been quite closely related. This has helped the researchers to build a more detailed picture of the spinosaur family tree.

Its location in the Arcillas de Morella Formation also reveals more about the ancient ecosystems of what is now Spain. Another spinosaur, Vallibonavenatrix cani, was found in nearby rocks, suggesting that at least two spinosaur species might have lived alongside each other.

'Our research demonstrates that two subfamilies of spinosaur occupied western Europe during the Early Cretaceous (145-100 million years ago) before later migrating to Africa and Asia,' Andrés says. 'Baryonyx-like spinosaurs became dominant in Europe, while Spinosaurus-like spinosaurs were most abundant in Africa.'

While the spinosaurs were widespread for a time, they did not survive until the end of the dinosaur era. Instead, they became extinct during the Late Cretaceous, millions of years before an asteroid impact wiped out the rest of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago.