Torvosaurus was the T. rex of Europe

It is often difficult to say what kind of animal a fossil belongs to, but this vertebra is so large that it can only come from one animal group—the dinosaurs.

And Matthews doesn’t just find a dinosaur. Previous fossil finds indicate that one of the largest land predators lived off the Portuguese coast.

Coastal rocks are a river delta

Dinosaurs didn’t properly invade the world until the Jurassic period, 201 to 145 million years ago. At the time, the Lorraine Formation was a vast river delta swarming with dinosaurs. Ferns and coniferous forests dominated the area and the climate was mild and warm.

Along rivers and streams wet sand and mud save bones and footprints of all kinds. The Lourinhã Formation is therefore one of the best places in Europe to look for fossils.

Many late Jurassic dinosaurs have been found in the area, such as Miragaia, a herbivorous stegosaurus with plates on its back and an unusually long neck; the long-necked sauropod Dinheirosaurus lourinhanensis, named after the Lourinhã region; And perhaps the most well-known of all of the jurassic carnivores, Allosaurus.

But despite its length of 9 meters and weight of 2.5 tons, Allosaurus was not the largest predator in the area.

The bone pattern becomes visible

Step by step, the researchers are getting closer to the point where Mateus found the vertebra. The road is very steep and winding, but they jump from rock to rock with ease.

They step on a ledge, and see a vertebra sticking out of a rock. At first glance, the fossil appears to be just a black mass, but closer examination reveals a pattern of thousands of lines. These lines are made up of the fibers that make up the bones.

Octávio Mateus and Micael Martinho begin to dislodge the bone from the rock. Although they brought in modern tools—a battery-powered diamond saw and a rotary hammer—this kind of field work still involved a lot of manual labor.

Using a hammer and chisel, they cut small pieces of rock around the fossil.

Paleontologists may not be able to say which dinosaur the vertebrae belonged to. This depends on whether they find species-specific details, which only come to light when the fossil is examined later in the laboratory.

But Mateus and Martino have doubts. The vertebra could belong to a large Torvosaurus – a carnivore with a mouth almost as large as that of the dinosaur king, Tyrannosaurus rex.

Killer animals everywhere

Torvosaurus gurneyi is by far the largest carnivore to ever set foot on the European continent. The giant originated in the late Jurassic period and belongs to the Megalosaurus family – a group of carnivorous dinosaurs native to Europe, North America, South America and Africa.

The first fossil appeared in the United States, and the animal was named in the late 1970s. At first, paleontologists thought Torvosaurus came from North America, but fossils in Portugal cast doubt on that theory.

For years, scientists believed that a jaw piece found in 2006 in the Lourinhã Formation belonged to Torvosaurus tanneri in North America, but a team of researchers, including Mateus, discovered after careful analysis in 2013 that the bone had features that set it apart from North American skulls.

And when one of the oldest fossils of an unidentified member of the genus Torvosaurus turned up in Germany in 2020, it cemented the dinosaur’s profile as a European species.

Large predators play a major role

For two days, paleontologists worked at the place where the vertebra was found by Octavio Mateus. Meanwhile, other fossils are turning up—including something resembling a rib. The goal is to extract all the bones, but at this point there is no telling which dinosaur they belong to. One thing’s for sure: It’s way too young to come from Torvosaurus.

Torvosaurus fossil finds have been relatively rare in Portugal since researchers found a piece of its upper jaw in 2006. So they know little about the apex predator, making each new fossil find extra valuable.

“The top predators play a major role in the food chain, and knowledge about them contributes to a better understanding of the food chain as a whole,” Matthaus explains.

More Torvosaurus fossils could also help scientists understand where the species originated and how it spread.

And this happens on the third day.

During the breakfast meeting, where the fieldwork for the day is being decided, Octavio Mateus says there is a promising discovery that he would like to take a closer look at. The discovery was made in an unexplored area of ​​the Lourinhã Formation, and may be part of a tooth.

Its size indicates that it could only have come from a single animal.

The monster is 11 meters long

Earlier Torvosaurus fossils, including the upper jaw, indicate that the carnivore preyed on large animals–and perhaps even the long-necked sauropods that also lived in the Lourinhã area.

Torvosaurus could reach a length of 11 meters and a weight of 4 to 5 tons – compared to 12 meters and 9 tons for a T. rex. But while Torvosaurus was quite similar in length and appearance to a T. rex, it didn’t have the bite force of a Cretaceous king.

Torvosaurus had carving, knife-shaped teeth that could easily slice through muscle, but they were relatively narrow and not as strong as those of T. rex, whose root was nearly as long as the tooth itself. T. rex’s teeth were also noticeably thicker, allowing them to crush anything they came across.

However, Torvosaurus had the strongest bite of the Jurassic period, and for millions of years it terrorized herbivores across the region with its sheer size.

Rectangular cut

After the morning meeting, the search party walked under the blazing sun to the site where the tooth was found. Octavio Mateus points to a grayish-brown oval protruding half an inch from a rock. He has no doubts. It is the root of the tooth.

The rootstock is 2 cm wide at its widest point. The surface is glossy and even to the touch, almost smooth.

Like most predatory dinosaurs, Torvosaurus changed its teeth every now and then, as it often broke during fierce fighting. So finding a tooth does not necessarily mean that the rest of the animal is nearby.

But the group gets to work, methodically exposing a rectangle of rock around the root of the tooth with hammers and diamond drills.

Using small chisels, they carefully made their way to the fossil.

Boulders fly around, until a cracking sound reveals that the oblong rock that covered the tooth of this torphosaurus for about 150 million years has now broken away from the bedrock.

Scientists do fives. mission accomplished.

This tooth root often has limited scientific value, as it does not usually tell us how the owner lives. But with this discovery, it’s a different story. Subsequent analyzes show that Torvosaurus gurneyi ruled Portugal 2 to 3 million years earlier than scientists had thought.

So the European T. rex has been on the throne for a very long time.

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Winton Frazier

 "Amateur web lover. Incurable travel nerd. Beer evangelist. Thinker. Internet expert. Explorer. Gamer."

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