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A fossil hunter found bones on the Isle of Wight before he died. He likely discovered Europe's "largest predatory dinosaur."

Flying reptile fossil unearthed in Scotland
"Superbly preserved" flying reptile fossil unearthed in Scotland 01:26

A giant crocodile-faced dinosaur discovered on the Isle of Wight by one of Britain's best fossil hunters was probably the largest predator ever to stalk Europe, scientists said on Thursday. Most of the bones of the two-legged spinosaurid were found by the late local collector Nick Chase, who dedicated his life to combing the beaches of the island on England's southern coast for dinosaur remains.

Researchers at the University of Southampton then used the few bones available to identify what they have called the "White Rock spinosaurid," they said in a study published in the journal PeerJ.

Artist's illustration shows a large meat-eating dinosaur dubbed the "White Rock spinosaurid,"
Artist's illustration shows a large meat-eating dinosaur dubbed the "White Rock spinosaurid," whose remains dating from about 125 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period were unearthed on England's Isle of Wight. ANTHONY HUTCHINGS via Reuters

"This was a huge animal, exceeding 10 meters (33 feet) in length and judging from some of the dimensions, probably represents the largest predatory dinosaur ever found in Europe," said PhD student Chris Barker, who led the study.

While admitting it would be better to have more bones, Barker told AFP the "numbers don't lie — it is bigger than the biggest known specimen" previously found in Europe.

Thomas Richard Holtz, a vertebrate paleontologist from the University of Maryland who was not involved in study, agreed that the new find "does seem to be larger" than a huge predator whose fossilized remains were discovered in Portugal.

The White Rock spinosaurid — which the researchers hope to see formally named as a new species — is from the Early Cretaceous period, estimated to be around 125 million years old. Barker said that makes it the youngest spinosaurid ever found in Britain, two or three million years younger than the well-known Baryonyx.

Spinosaurids are known for their elongated heads. Rather than having boxy skulls like a Tyrannosaurus rex, their faces look more like that of a crocodile. A leading theory to explain this trait is that they may have hunted on water as well as land.

"They're kind of like storks and herons, wading in and snatching fish from the surface," Barker said.

The White Rock spinosaurid was discovered in a lagoonal coastal environment where few dinosaur fossils are normally found.

"It helps start to paint a picture of what animals were living in the time, which is a very poorly known part of English palaeontological heritage," Barker added.

The team had already discovered two new spinosaurid species on the Isle of Wight, including the Ceratosuchops inferodios — dubbed the "hell heron."

Discovered brain case of the Ceratosuchops inferodios, which translates as the "horned crocodile-faced hell heron." Chris Barker/University of Southampton

"This new animal bolsters our previous argument — published last year — that spinosaurid dinosaurs originated and diversified in western Europe before becoming more widespread," study co-author Darren Naish said.

The paleontologists paid tribute to Chase, who always donated whatever bones he found to museums.

"Most of these amazing fossils were found by Nick Chase, one of Britain's most skilled dinosaur hunters, who sadly died just before the COVID epidemic," said study co-author Jeremy Lockwood, a PhD student at the University of Portsmouth.

Barker said Chase's "uncanny ability" to find bones showed that "it's not just professional paleontologists who are making impacts in the discipline."

The discovery "highlights the fact that collectors have a big role to play in modern paleontology and their generosity helps move science forwards," he added.

And if there are any aspiring fossil hunters hoping to pick up where Chase left off, the paleontologists said they would welcome more White Rock spinosaurid bones.

"We hope that a passerby might pick up some bits and donate them," Barker said.

The new find is the latest in a recent string of major paleontological discoveries in England and Scotland.

In February, scientists announced the fossil of a 170-million-year-old pterosaur, described as the world's best-preserved skeleton of the prehistoric winged reptile, had been found on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. In January, paleontologists announced the discovery of the fossilized remains of a giant Jurassic "sea dragon" in England. 

In 2020, scientists on the Isle of Wight discovered a new species of theropod dinosaur — making it a close relative of the Tyrannosaurus rex. The new dinosaur, named Vectaerovenator inopinatus, is believed to have grown to around 13 feet long and roamed the Earth during the Cretaceous period, about 115 million years ago. 

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