Surrounded by a coastal subtropical landscape, close to a river delta, lived 125 million years ago Vallibonavenatrix cani, a carnivorous dinosaur of between eight or nine meters, which belonged to the group spinosaurids.
This has been confirmed by scientists from the Dom Luiz Institute of Lisbon (Portugal), the National University of Distance Education (UNED) and the Autonomous University of Madrid (UAM) who have studied the remains of his skeleton discovered in the Formation site Clays of Morella in the town of Santa Águeda in Vallibona (Castellón).
"At Lower Cretaceous there were two large theropods on the Peninsula: Concavenator found in Las Hoyas (Cuenca) and the spinosaurid that appears in most of the sites of this date, but hardly identifiable until now due to the scarce material ”, explained Francisco Ortega, paleontologist of the Evolutionary Biology Group of the UNED and co-author of the study that publishes the Cretaceous Research magazine.
Vallibonavenatrix becomes, therefore, in the only described representative of the family of spinosáuridos in the Iberian peninsula.
The known fossils of this dinosaur were found in the early 90's by Juan Cano Forner, a paleontology fan from Sant Mateu (Castellón). In 1994 they became part of its museum collection, recognized by the Generalitat Valenciana. In fact, the name of this new species means 'the huntress of Vallibona' and 'cani' refers to the discoverer of the remains.
Since its discovery, several campaigns have sought to more bones of this unsuccessful dinosaur. “We thought we were going to find more remains, in fact last year we made two ex profeso excavations to try to hunt this animal in places where there were references to theropod remains. But we had little luck, these predators are very elusive, "adds Ortega.
The skeleton analyzed includes dorsal, sacral and caudal vertebrae and elements of the pelvic girdle of the animal. Traditionally the few spinosaurid fossils known from the Iberian Peninsula had been assigned to the genus Baryonyx from the Lower Cretaceous of England. However, it has always been considered that the analysis of new remains would allow a better adjustment of this assignment and that the diversity of Iberian spinosaurids could be more complex.
A spinosaurid with relatives in the southern hemisphere
Spinosaurids are characterized by the peculiar shape of their skulls and teeth, which present certain similarities to those of crocodiles. In addition, they are very recognizable by the development of high neural spines in some of their vertebrae, which produces a kind of candle on the back of their back, to which they owe their name.
These animals are relatively scarce in the Iberian Peninsula, but they have an abundant record in North Africa, South America, Asia and, more closely, in England. “What has surprised us is that this dinosaur is more related to the spinosaurids of North Africa as Spinosaurus, or Asia, like Ichthyovenator, than with another European theropod of the same family as Baryonyx”, Points out Ortega.
Vallibonavenatrix it lived in a habitat that during the Lower Cretaceous would be located far to the south, close to the current position of the Canary Islands. The concrete point of the Arcillas de Morella Formation it would be at the mouth of a river, very close to the coast. The climate was very humid and warm, with a certain alternation of seasons and a dry season.
The fauna that accompanied the dinosaur was typical of all Europe, composed mainly of species of gregarious herbivores that would graze in this place, such as the iguanodontid ornithopods, of which Morelladon beltrani is an autochthonous representative of this site.
He also lived with armored dinosaurs of the type ankylosaurs and there is a record of other smaller ones, such as lizards or species typical of the sea line, such as tropical turtles, crocodiles, plesiosaurs and sharks due to their proximity to the coast.
A historical formation in the paleontology of dinosaurs of Spain
The Arcillas de Morella Formation It is one of the most frequent references in the history of Spanish fossil vertebrates, since it is the origin of some of the first dinosaur remains identified in Spain in the last third of the 19th century.
Its deposits emerge in different parts of the region. "In Vallibona there is a record of dinosaurs since the 1920s and in the vicinity we have collected excavations by paleontologists from Castellón since the 1930s. These clays are extremely rich", indicates the paleontologist from UNED.
Clay mines for brick building are plentiful, and scientists track them as dinosaur remains by the thousands. "Mandatory paleontological controls are made for heritage," continues Ortega.
The work presented is part of the line of research that this group develops for the reconstruction of the faunas that inhabited the Lower Cretaceous ecosystems of the Morella Formation in the current Castellón region of Els Ports, geologically integrated into the Maestrazgo Basin.
Malafaia, E., Gasulla, J. M., Escaso, F., Narváez, I., Sanz, JL., Ortega, F. (2019). "A new spinosaurid theropod (Dinosauria: Megalosauroidea) from the late Barremian of Vallibona Spain: Implications for spinosaurid diversity in the Early Cretaceous of the Iberian Peninsula”. Cretaceous Research, 104221. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cretres.2019.104221.