A war, bones dealer and a desert expedition: The story behind learning Spinosaurus could swim

Bigger than Tyrannosaurus rex, Spinosaurus lived during the Cretaceous era between 145.5 and 65.5 million years ago, which was the last period of the Mesozoic Era following the Jurassic Era and ending with the extinction of dinosaurs, except birds.

(CNN)Unlike most dinosaurs, it seems that spinosaurs liked the water.

This suggestion is based on the analysis of a well-preserved fossil tail of Spinosaurus aegyptiacus, published Wednesday in the journal Nature.
Spinosaurs were a unique group of large-bodied theropods historically interpreted as nearshore waders that fed on fish along the margins of bodies of water.
Bigger than both Tyrannosaurus rex and Giganotosaurus, they lived during the Cretaceous era -- between 145.5 and 65.5 million years ago. That was the last period of the Mesozoic Era following the Jurassic Era, ending with the extinction of dinosaurs (except for birds).
    An almost complete tail from a subadult Spinosaurus was found in the 95-million-year-old Kem Kem Beds on the northwestern edge of the Sahara Desert in southeastern Morocco, the researchers said. The tail helped Spinosaurus to move through and hunt in water.
    Historically, Spinosaurus was known only from incomplete fossils. The only other associated specimen to be discovered was destroyed during World War II.
    Previous research on non-avian dinosaurs suggested these animals were restricted to dry land environments, and proposals that some groups lived in aquatic environments were considered controversial and were abandoned decades ago.
    In a 2014 study, some of the same researchers identified a series of adaptations in the largest known spinosaurid, S. Aegyptiacus, that would have supported a semiaquatic lifestyle. They included reduced hind limbs, wide feet with large flat toe bones and long bones that were dense but good for buoyancy. What's more, S. Aegyptiacus had a suite of cranial features such as crocodile-like teeth and jaws, and a nose suited for diving.
    How Spinosaurus moved through water was still unknown.
    The discovery was, "in many ways, a dream come true, because as a scientist you're always hoping to make a discovery that is really going to change at a fundamental level how people think about a discipline -- in this case, paleontology," said lead author Nizar Ibrahim, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Detroit Mercy in Michigan.

    Evidence lost to international warfare

    Associated specimens of Spinosaurus were described in the early 20th century by pioneering and legendary German paleontologist Ernst Stromer. Stromer unearthed bones in a different part of the Sahara desert in Egypt, and had them on display at the Bavarian State Archaeological Collection in Munich, Germany.
    "At the time, that was actually one of the best and largest natural history museums in all of Europe," Ibrahim said.
    "But then in 1944, Allied Forces targeted Munich, and many of these bombing raids were pretty indiscriminate. About 80% of the old town of Munich was destroyed, including the museum where the bones of spinosaurs were housed.
    "This was a Royal Air Force bombing raid in April 1944, and it destroyed the only Spinosaurus skeleton in existence. So, pretty dramatic background story."
    Stromer had also published early drawings of Spinosaurus. The only materials that survived were two photographs and a couple of drawings, which have been published.

    A lone local collector's discovery

    After a few Spinosaurus bones were found in Morocco by a local collector in 2008, Ibrahim met the collector that same year. A few months later, Ibrahim was standing in a Milan, Italy, museum when he came across many more bones and realized they belonged to the same skeleton.
    "That's when I realized the local fossil hunter found more bones, that [they] belonged to the same skeleton and that the local fossil hunter had sold these other bones to an Italian [geologist and fossil collector] who then donated them to science, and that's how they ended up in an Italian museum," Ibrahim said.

    Detective work

    Ibrahim went on to relocate the fossil hunter so he could show him the actual dig site in Morocco.
    "It was a lot of detective work, and it was really like looking for a needle in a haystack, because I had to find this one guy who I'd only met once before to get him to show me where he had found these bones," Ibrahim said.
    "And as far as he was concerned," Ibrahim continued, "he was done with that dig site. He didn't really think there was much more to be found there. But of course, subsequently we found much more, including most recently the tail of this dinosaur."

    The excavation

    Then the team put together a series of expeditions to the Sahara. It wasn't easy, Ibrahim remembered, considering the preparation needed and the exceptionally hot temperatures and storms -- and even flooding -- in the desert.
    The September 2018 team that unearthed the tail of the only associated Spinosaurus skeleton in existence. Left to right, and top to bottom: Simone Maganuco, Ayoub Amane, M'Barek Fouadassi, Nizar Ibrahim, Samir Zouhri, Cristiano Dal Sasso, Gabriele Bindellini, Marco Auditore, Matteo Fabbri, Diego Mattarelli, Hamid Azroal, Mhamed Azroal.
    Ten years later in 2018, the team made most of the significant discoveries with the help of a jackhammer that removed about 15 tons of rock to get to the bone-bearing layer where the tailbones were found.
    They found more than 30 vertebrae of the Spinosaurus, representing about 80% of the original tail length and contributing to what is now the most complete skeleton of a Cretaceous carnivorous dinosaur in mainland Africa.
    The Kem Kem Beds were home to an evolving river system, with channels and deposits that would have stretched from Morocco to Egypt across what is now the Sahara desert, Ibrahim said.
    "It was a river system that covered an area about the size of the United States, and it was home to giant fish, some as big as a car," he added. "So Spinosaurus fits right in there."
    A view of the Kem Kem region, Sahara Desert (south-eastern Morocco), from the excavation site of Spinosaurus.