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Carcharodontosaurus

The Carcharodontosaurus is a huge carnivorous theropod dinosaur that lived at the same time and in the same parts of North Africa as the popular Spinosaurus and the giant prehistoric crocodile Sarcosuchus, the 10-ton SuperCroc. Its name, which means "sharp-toothed lizard" immediately evokes that of the greatest predator of the ocean: the Carcharodon Carcharias, the Great White Shark. It has been named because of its long triangular sharp teeth that are similar to those found in the jaw of the sea monster.

Often regarded as the African T-Rex by many dinosaur lovers, Carcharodontosaurus is not as well known as the famous Laramidia beast nor as its related cousin from Argentina, the 10-ton theropod Giganotosaurus. As much as it is possible to deduce from available fossil evidence, the gigantic carcharodontosaurid dinosaurs of Africa and America (such as Carcharodontosaurus, Acrocanthosaurus and Giganotosaurus) were all distant descendants of the common theropod Allosaurus, the apex predator of Upper Jurassic North America and Western Europe. The evolutionary precursors of Allosaurus itself are more mysterious and can be traced tens of millions of years earlier when the first true dinosaurs began to clearly distinguish themselves from the archosaurs in South American regions during the Middle Triassic.

Holotype fossil destroyed by bombing in Munich

The Carcharodontosaurus not only share the tropical oasis of Morocco with Spinosaurus but it also had other things in common with the greatest carnivore of all time: both have been discovered by the German paleontologist Ernst Stromer von Reichenbach and their holotype specimens were both destroyed during Allied raid on the German city of Munich. Since that time, paleontologists have had to settle for plaster replicas of the original bones and an almost complete skull also discovered in Morocco in 1995 by American globe-trotter and paleontologist Paul Sereno.

Since fossil evidence is so rare, Carcharodontosaurus is one of those dinosaurs whose length and weight are particularly difficult to estimate. Several decades ago paleontologists estimated that this dinosaur measured 40 feet from head to tail and weighed around 10 tons, making it as big or even bigger than the Tyrannosaurus Rex. Today, it is more modestly estimated that Carcharodontosaurus had a length of about 30 feet for a weight of 5 tons, a few tons lighter than the largest specimens of Tyrannosaurus.

Originally classified as a species of Megalosaurus

During a large part of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, all the large carnivorous dinosaurs that had no distinguishing features were automatically classified as Megalosaurus species, the first identified theropod. This was also the case of Carcharodontosaurus, to which fossil hunters who discovered a tooth in 1924 in Algeria attributed the name of M. saharicus. A few years later, Ernst Stromer von Reichenbach renamed this dinosaur C. saharicus after discovering the bones of the holotype specimen.

There is a second species of Carcharodontosaurus, C. iguidensis, erected by Paul Sereno in 2007. C. iguidensis is almost identical to C. saharicus with the exception of the shape of the cervical cage and upper jaw.

The Middle Cretaceous, the golden age of large carnivores

The largest carnivorous dinosaurs of the Mesozoic era lived in Africa and South America during the Middle Cretaceous period. This means that the size and mass of theropods reached their peak a good 40 million years before the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction. Carcharodontosaurus was closely related to one of the most massive predators of this time, Giganotosaurus. They undoubtedly had a common ancestor who lived at a time when South America and Africa were still part of the same mass of land. When these separated, different lineage developed. Tyrannosaurs such as the T-Rex are the only ones to have perpetrated the tradition of gigantism until the end of the Mesozoic era.

Carcharodontosaurus, a dimwit

Carcharodontosaurus skull with Paul Sereno

Like all his carnivorous fellows from Middle Cretaceous, Carcharodontosaurus was relatively dumb because the size of its brain was small relative to the rest of its body. The brain of Carcharodontosaurus had about the same proportions as that of Allosaurus, an ancestor who lived tens of millions of years earlier. The skull discovered by Paul Sereno in the 90s was 2 meters long - as large as that of a Tyrannosaurus - but the brain cavity was much smaller indicating that these theropod dinosaurs had gained intelligence over time.

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