Meet the new dinosaur: Horned, crocodile-faced hell heron

British palaeontologists have unearthed two new species of dinosaur on the unassuming, 380 square kilometre Isle of Wight, off England’s south coast, according to a new study out today in the journal Scientific Reports.

The two new creatures appear to be types of spinosaurids, predatory theropod dinosaurs related to the giant Spinosaurus.

The haul of bones was discovered over a period of years by amateur fossil hunters and later a crew of researchers from Dinosaur Isle Museum, on a beach near the picturesque village of Brighstone. In all, over 50 bones were recovered from the site, from rocks dating to the Early Cretaceous some 125 million years ago.

Now, new analysis of the bones by researchers from the University of Southampton suggests they belonged to two new species previously unknown to science.

“We found the skulls to differ not only from Baryonyx [the UK’s only spinosaurid specimen before now], but also one another, suggesting the UK housed a greater diversity of spinosaurids than previously thought,” says lead author Chris Barker, of the University of Southampton.

But co-author Darren Naish, an expert in British theropod dinosaurs, says the discovery of spinosaurids on the Isle of Wight was a long time coming.

“We’ve known for a couple of decades now that Baryonyx-like dinosaurs awaited discovery on the Isle of Wight, but finding the remains of two such animals in close succession was a huge surprise.”

Although the skeletons are incomplete, the researchers estimate that both species would have been around nine metres long; it’s likely they grabbed prey with their metre-long skulls.

The first species has been named Ceratosuchops inferodios, which translates, evocatively, to the “horned, crocodile-faced hell heron”. The creature had a series of low horns and bumps on its hefty brow, and its hunting style would have been similar to – though much more frightening than – that of a heron.

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The second species was named Riparovenator milnerae, translated as “Milner’s riverbank hunter”, in honour of the late British palaeontologist Angela Milner, who studied and named Baryonyx.

“It might sound odd to have two similar and closely related carnivores in an ecosystem, but this is actually very common for both dinosaurs and numerous living ecosystems,” says co-author David Hone, from Queen Mary University of London.

And the researchers say their discovery suggests spinosaurids may have first evolved in Europe, before dispersing into Asia, Africa and South America.

So what would their environment have looked like, all those years ago?

According to the authors, the Early Cretaceous rocks on the Isle of Wight reveal an ancient floodplain with a Mediterranean climate, balmy weather and occasional forest fires. The river and estuarine environment would have housed fish, sharks and crocodiles, providing ample prey for the two spinosaurids.

The discovery was a very personal win for some of the amateur fossil collectors who contributed important finds to the study. “This is the rarest and most exciting find I’ve made in over 30 years of fossil collecting,” says fossil contributor Brian Foster, from Yorkshire.

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