December 10, 2008
A group of snub-nosed theropods called the Abelisauridae aren’t as famous as predators such as Allosaurus or Tyrannosaurus, but they were every bit as scary. Aucasaurus, Rajasaurus, Rugops, and Kryptops lived in what is now South America and Africa, often alongside other predatory dinosaurs such as spinosaurids and carcharodontosaurids. Now a new abelisaurid has been discovered, named Skorpiovenator, or “scorpion hunter.” The nearly-complete skeleton got its name from the fact that the excavation site was crawling with scorpions; not fossil ones, but ones that can crawl into your boots at night and give you a stinging surprise in the morning.
Like other abelisaurids, the skull of Skorpiovenator was short, stout, and covered with bony tubercles and ridges. The function of these gnarly skull features among these dinosaurs is unknown, as is how Skorpiovenator interacted with other predatory dinosaurs that it coexisted with. Skorpiovenator may have had to share its range with another abelisaurid, Ilokelesia, and the gigantic carcharodontosaurid Mapusaurus, which would have put them in competition for prey. In places where multiple large predators exist today, like Africa, each predator has different prey preferences and hunting strategies. Could it have been the same with the Cretaceous predators of South America?
The discovery of any nearly-complete, new dinosaur is exciting, but the announcement of Skorpiovenator is important for another reason. Since predatory dinosaurs shed and grew new teeth throughout their lives, their teeth are more prevalent in the fossil record than their skeletons. If you know what kind of tooth matches what predatory dinosaur, then you can identify many more specimens and tell how long a species of dinosaur inhabited the area. The problem is that the teeth don’t always exactly match known skeletons, and sometimes teeth that were thought to belong to one type of predator turn out to belong to another. The authors of the Skorpiovenator paper suggest that some teeth previously thought to belong to carcharodontosaurids that lived until the end of the Cretaceous look more similar to the teeth of Skorpiovenator, which means that they may actually belong to abelisaurids. Confirming this will require more research, but it seems that Skorpiovenator has the potential to tell us a lot about what Cretaceous South America was like.
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