We have a new dinosaur! A theropod with short limbs like Tyrannosaurus Rex. Tyrannosaurus is not the only famous giant carnivorous dinosaur; meet Meraxes Gigas.
During the summer of 2022, researchers uncovered a previously unknown dinosaur from the Late Cretaceous, Meraxes Gigas. Meraxes belongs to the genus carcharodontosaurid theropods. The name, “Meraxes”, honors a dragon from the George R. R. Martin novel, A Song of Ice and Fire – Wikipedia The specific name, “Gigas”, derived from the Greek word meaning “giant”, in reference to the theropod’s large size.
Found in the Huincul Formation of Argentine Patagonia was a nearly complete skeleton. Meraxes Gigas is of pivotal importance because this discovery constitute a complete skull, partial forelimbs, complete hindlimbs, fragmentary ribs, and cervical and complete caudal vertebrae.
The hand of theropods is imperative to determine whether the specimen is primitive or derived. Primitive in dinosaur terminology means an early stage in evolutionary development. Derived means most recent in dinosaurian evolution. To help this make sense, Coelophysis is a primitive ancestor of the derived Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Primitive theropod dinosaurs have longer arms and digital formula I-IV. Derived theropods will have shorter arms and a reduced number of digits.
Coelophysis, the oldest known theropod, defined as a primitive Late Triassic theropod had longer arms and 4 digits on each hand.
Allosaurus, more derived lived during the Middle-Late Jurassic and possess shorter arms and only three digits on each hand. Tyrannosaurus the Cretaceous apex predator had very short arms and only 2 digits on each hand.
As observed by these images, the skull, forearms, hands, and digits are gold in theropod discoveries. The hands of theropod dinosaurs tell us so much about the evolution of dinosaurs during the Mesozoic.
In addition to the forearms and digits, complete or near complete skulls found in new dinosaurs’ discoveries help us understand more about the creatures.
At first glance, the skulls of these giant theropods appear similar; massive jaws with numerous long serrated teeth. To the trained eye, the skulls of Giganotosaurus and Tyrannosaurus Rex are remarkably different.
Giganotosaurus has a long narrow skull that comes to a sharp point. The skull of Tyrannosaurus Rex is boxier and comes to a lateral line rather than a point. See the images below.
Another example of primitive and derived evolution is theropods, Allosaurus, Ceratosaurus, and, Tyrannosaurus. See the images below.
While these three theropods appear similar, Allosaurus and contemporary Ceratosaurus predate Tyrannosaurus by 80 million years.
Another feature present in theropod dinosaurs, specifically primitive species, is that of head crests. Many Late Triassic and Early Jurassic theropod species possessed head crests. It is thought that these crests were used as display features for mating and sexual dimorphism. In later derived theropod species, these crests disappear.
The image above depicts Ceratosaurus nasicornis, the apex predator of the early Jurassic, displaying crests on the head can be seen. Ceratosaurus was driven to extinction by the Late Jurassic, succeeded by the more successful Allosaurus.
Allosaurus, as mentioned above, is the most famous predecessor to Tyrannosaurus Rex. Living through the greater part of the Jurassic, Allosaurus was the apex predator of its time and possessed primitive features – three-digit hands, long forearms, and head crests. It is now known why derived theropods lose the head crests.
By the time we traverse, the expansive amount of time between Ceratosaurus and Tyrannosaurus Rex (80 million years) head crests disappear from theropod anatomy.
In addition to reduced digits and head crests, as theropods evolve they get larger. Coelophysis at maturity was about 10 feet long and weighed 100 pounds. Compare that to the Jurassic theropod Ceraosaurus which grew to 20 feet long and weighed about 2,000 pounds. Allosaurus grew to be 12 feet long and 10 feet tall weighing 2.3 metric tons. Tyrannosaurus Rex, the largest land theropod to ever live grew to 43 feet long and weighed 6-8 tons.
Now, that you have a better understanding of theropod dinosaurs, let’s take another look at Meraxes gigas. Meraxes is a crucial find in the world of dinosaur studies because the remains included key anatomical features, a complete forelimb, hand, a skull, and various other bones. The most important being that of the hand and skull.
According to the research, Meraxes Gigas had tiny arms like Tyrannosaurus with three digits on each hand like Allosaurus. Tyrannosaurus and Meraxies are not related as they are separated by about 20 million years, but it does suggest that as theropods evolved larger heads, the arms shrunk, no longer useful for hunting. Regarding size, Meraxes Gigas was 36 feet long and weighed 4 tons. To put this into perspective, Meraxies is smaller than Tyrannosaurus Rex but much larger than Allosaurus. Further noted, Meraxies does not appear to have head crests.
In terms of theropod evolution, Meraxies is more derived than Allosaurus but primitive compared to Tyrannosaurus. In terms of theropod evolution, this put Meraxies Gigas living about 90 to 100 million years ago, firmly in the Late Cretaceous. Meraxes Gigas and its close relative, Giganotosaurus died out in the Late Cretaceous, succeeding their position at the top of the food chain to the tyrannosaurids, and its famous member, Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Meraxes Gigas and the newly discovered theropod dinosaur were one of the last groups of giant carnivores to walk the Earth. While we often think of Tyrannosaurus Rex as being the lone giant carnivore stalking the Cretaceous, other large theropods competed with the tyrant dinosaurs. Although Meraxes Gigas never laid witness to the meteor that would ultimately bring the reign of the dinosaurs to an end, Tyrannosaurus Rex did.
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As always, thanks for reading Coffee and Coelophysis. Next time, we will take an in-depth look at the most famous theropod, Tyrannosaurus Rex.
~ Noelle ~