Cryolophosaurus roamed the planet during the early Jurassic period and while it is certainly not a commonly known dinosaur it was unique in a variety of ways. Along with its unique physical appearance the Cryolophosaurus also lived in a unique area of the world that many other species of dinosaur tended to avoid. Jokingly referred to as the “Elvisaurus” the Cryolophosaurus was a large carnivorous dinosaur that is of great significance to the paleontological world not just for its unique status as a meat eater that roamed where most others would not go but also because it is the oldest known Tetanuran that has ever been discovered in the history of paleontological discovery.
The Cryolophosaurus was the First Discovered Carnivorous Dinosaur of the Antarctic
Cryolophosaurus walked the planet some 188 million years ago and this giant bipedal carnivore may not have measured up to the later carnivorous giants to come but this beast did not have all that much competition in its chosen territory. Unlike many other large carnivorous bipeds the Cryolophosaurus made its home in Antarctica and was the first carnivorous dinosaur to ever be discovered on the continent. Not only was it the first carnivorous dinosaur to be found in Antarctica but it was also the first dinosaur from the continent of Antarctica to be officially named! Cryolophosaurus was categorized as a Tetanuran dinosaur, a class of dinosaurs which describes nearly all of the Theropods because it classifies those with stiff tails. While most Tetanurans were believed to have begun evolving during the middle of the Jurassic period the discovery of Cryolophosaurus allowed paleontologists to widen that estimate to include the beginning of the Jurassic period as well. The Tetanurans were specifically the large stiff tailed Theropods that show more semblance to the birds of modern day society than they did to the Ceratosaurus, large carnivorous dinosaurs with small horns on skull features.
How Large Did Cryolophosaurus Grow?
Cryolophosaurus may have been the first of the known Tetanurans but it most certainly was not the largest; however, with little carnivorous competition in the cooler climate of the Antarctic continent it would not have been necessary for Cryolophosaurus to grow to extreme sizes. Remaining at a “reasonable” size would also have allowed the Cryolophosaurus to thrive in the cool atmosphere by reducing the amount of food that it would require to fuel its large body in the cooler environment. In comparison to the much larger Tetanurans such as Megalosaurus and Allosaurus the Cryolophosaurus may have appeared smaller but in the cool Antarctic this large predator would have been close to the top of the heap when it came to the food chain. The Cryolophosaurus measured around 20 feet long and approximately 5 feet tall and it also weighed in at around 1,160 pounds. This large carnivore was much more formidable than many of the other species walking the Antarctic continent in the early Jurassic period.
What Did Cryolophosaurus Eat?
Cryolophosaurus is recognized by many dinosaur lovers for its rather unique cranial crest. Rather than resembling the horn like crests of the large herbivores like Parasaurolophus, the cranial crest of the Cryolophosaurus looked much more like a sideways chicken comb attached to the skull between the dinosaur’s eyes. Some people refer to this cranial crest as looking much like the pompadour haircut that Elvis wore in the 1950’s and as a result this formidable carnivore of the cooler Antarctic continent is often jokingly referred to as “Elvisaurus.” For the prey of the Cryolophosaurus; however, this predator was no joke! The Cryolophosaurus fed on large plant eating dinosaurs such as Prosauropods. It is believed that the Cryolophosaurus had large sharp teeth which curved backwards to ensure that prey that was captured in the jaws was not able to escape. The Cryolophosaurus would have caught prey much like the other large Theropods like Tyrannosaurus, relying mostly on its jaws to do the killing as its forelimbs were particularly short and would have been unable to play a large part in killing prey. The shortened forearms could have potentially held prey but the killing aspect of hunting would have depended on the Cryolophosaurus’ large teeth.
The Cryolophosaurus’ Cranial Crest
The skull of the Cryolophosaurus was particularly narrow and tall and its most distinguishing feature is the cranial crest which runs perpendicular to the skull standing in the air like a sideways chicken comb or a horizontal fan. The crest of the Cryolophosaurus stood between the eye sockets and is made from the same bones as the skull rather than being made of keratin. The large furrowed cranial crest attaches to the Cryolophosaurus orbital horns on either side. Orbital horns are found in many Theropods but the unique cranial crest of the Cryolophosaurus has not been found on any other Theropod to date. Much like other dinosaurs with cranial crests, paleontologists believe that the cranial crest of the Cryolophosaurus would have been utilized in identification within the species as well as a marker for maturity. It is also likely that the Cryolophosaurus’ cranial crest would have been utilized in mating displays with females most likely opting to mate with the male that had the largest cranial crest or perhaps the brightest. As with all coloration of the dinosaurs the color of the Cryolophosaurus is generally depicted as being red; however, no one can ever know for certain what color any of these great beasts were and so this is only speculation.
Cryolophosaurus Resembles Many Dinosaurs
The Cryolophosaurus poses something of a conundrum for paleontologists who want to classify this large Theropod because this primitive bipedal carnivore possesses traits of a variety of dinosaurs. The Cryolophosaurus particularly resembles the Theropods in its leg structure, while the skull represents the Tetanurae and other features of this dinosaur resemble those of the Ceratosaur. It was through much research; however, that paleontologists determined that the Cryolophosaurus was most likely the earliest of Teranuran dinosaurs because of its similarity to other Tenurae.
The Early Jurassic Climate of Antarctica
While the unique Cryolophosaurus is believed by many to be a somewhat magical dinosaur in that it had the ability to live in frozen Antarctica, it should be recognized that during the early Jurassic period the Antarctic continent was nothing like the Antarctica that we know now. The continent was far closer to the equator and as a result it was considerably warmer than it is today and was marked with forests and vegetation. While the Antarctica of the early Jurassic period was considerably warm in comparison to the Antarctica of today it was also considered to be rather cool by dinosaur species and as a result it did not seem to team with life like much of the rest of the world did at this time. Fossilized evidence does point to the fact that there were diverse life forms on the Antarctic continent at this time though including Tritylodonts, Pterosaurs and Prosauropods. The temperate climate of Antarctica of the early Jurassic period seemed more hospitable to smaller more herbivorous life forms; however, somehow Cryolophosaurus was able to survive.
Cryolophosaurus Was Lighter and Faster Than T-Rex
While the skull of Cryolophosaurus was considerably slimmer in structure to that of other large Theropods the Cryolophosaurus did show resemblance to more commonly known Theropods in its physical structure and posture. Cryolophosaurus would have walked much like Tyrannosaurus Rex, holding its body at an angle with its large thick and stiff tail held out to the back and its body nearly parallel to the ground. The Cryolophosaurus had thick muscular legs which would have enabled it to safely carry its larger body weight. The Cryolophosaurus; however, would have likely been able to run at faster speeds than the much larger Theropods like Tyrannosaurus Rex, due to the fact that they were so much lighter. The muscular legs of the Cryolophosaurus would only have had around half a short ton of weight to carry around where the muscular legs of the Tyrannosaurus Rex had around 7 tons of weight to carry around. Carrying so much weight is not one of the only reasons that the Tyrannosaurus Rex moved much slower than the Cryolophosaurus either, were the Tyrannosaurus Rex to run at considerable paces and trip or fall the injuries sustained would have been severe if not fatal. For the smaller Cryolophosaurus tripping and falling would certainly have caused damage but it would likely not have resulted in the severity of damage that a Tyrannosaurus would have received from a similar fall. Still, with similar body traits, a large stiff tail, an angled posture and considerably tiny arms the Cryolophosaurus is not likely to have run particularly fast in comparison to some of the more agile bird like dinosaurs that were to follow the early Jurassic period.
Cryolophosaurus Was a Saurischian
Being considered as a Tetanura dinosaur the Cryolophosaurus small forelimbs featured three digits which would have proven handy in grasping prey or even grasping a mate during mating season, these three digits on the end of two rather short and stubby forelimbs would have been of little use in defensive fighting and were the Cryolophosaurus to defend itself it would have relied upon its incredibly powerful jaws. The Cryolophosaurus was a Saurischian dinosaur which meant that it had much larger fenestrae in the skull than the Ornithischians which allowed for much larger jaw muscles. The strong jaw muscles of the Cryolophosaurus would have attached to these large fenestrae in the skull that served not only as anchor points but also as a way to lighten the weight of the skull for this bipedal carnivore. As a Saurischian dinosaur the Cryolophosaurus had hips which were similar to the structure of lizard’s hips with a pubic bone that pointed down and forwards rather than backwards like the pubis of the Ornithischians.
Where was Cryolophosaurus Discovered?
The Cryolophosaurus was one of the later known dinosaurs not having been discovered until 1990 and 1991. Cryolophosaurus was found on Mount Kirkpatrick in the Beardmore Glacier area of the Transantarctic Mountains. The Cryolophosaurus specimen was found by William R. Hammer who was at the time a professor at Augustana College. The Cryolophosaurus specimen was pulled from siliceous siltstone of the Hanson formation and dated all the way back to the early Jurassic period. The finding posed some problems in that until the discovery of Cryolophosaurus such a dinosaur had never been discovered in the Antarctic or had it been discovered from such an early time period. The Cryolophosaurus was the first dinosaur of the Antarctic to be named, the first carnivore to be found in the Antarctic and the earliest known Tetanura to ever be found. The finding of Cryolophosaurus by William R. Hammer marked a real milestone for paleontologists who had thought at the time that life in the Antarctic region was particularly limited. In close proximity to the Cryolophosaurus remains that were recovered in the Hanson formation, paleontologists also located various other dinosaur specimens which proved that life was not as limited in the Antarctic as they had once believed it to be.
Who Discovered Cryolophosaurus?
Cryolophosaurus was first excavated by David Elliot, a geologist from Ohio who had agreed to split the funding of the archaeological dig with William R. Hammer. Elliot found his Cryolophosaurus specimen embedded in rock some 13,000 feet above sea level and 400 miles from the South Pole. Elliot told Hammer of his discovery and in the subsequent weeks Hammer excavated thousands of pounds of rock which contained various fossils including some Cryolophosaurus bones. The excavation of the Cryolophosaurus specimens certainly did not reveal all that there was to be known about these early Jurassic beasts because the specimens were far from complete. The specimens recovered from Hammer and Elliot’s Antarctic expedition consisted of minimal bones; however, among those bones were a skull which is one of the most important aspects of a dinosaur fossil in that it provides paleontologists with much more information about a dinosaur than most other sections of a specimen’s skeleton. The Cryolophosaurus discovery in the Hanson Formation consisted of a crushed skull, a mandible, 30 vertebrae, an ilium, an ischium, a pubis, a femur, a fibula, a tibiotarsus and metatarsals. While these bones may not form one complete Cryolophosaurus they certainly give paleontologists a lot to go on when reproducing how this Jurassic beast looked.
It wasn’t until 1994 that the Cryolophosaurus received its official name: Cryolophosaurus ellioti, named after David Elliot the first to excavate the Cryolophosaurus specimen. After the species description that appeared in the Journal of Science it would not be until 2003 that another expedition would be sent to the excavation site of the Cryolophosaurus specimens found by William R. Hammer and David Elliot. This second expedition would reveal further discovery of Cryolophosaurus bones at the initial dig site as well as at a second excavation site around 100 feet higher up the mountain. The Cryolophosaurus is certainly not one of the most numerous of fossilized specimens; however, with the few specimens that have been recovered from Antarctica paleontologists have been able to determine quite a lot of information about this incredible Antarctic Theropod.
Cryolophosaurus Utilized a Unique Environment to Survive
It is hard to imagine a time when a piece of land that has become as frigid as Antarctica was filled with lush forests and vegetation or even teaming with life. While the land seems barren today with the numerous species that call the frigid continent home it is important to remember that during the early Jurassic period life was much more abundant as a result of much more abundant pant growth and considerably higher temperatures. Certainly Antarctica would have been cooler to the dinosaurs that were used to living in the tropical climates of North America; however, it would still have been habitable and had much to offer in terms of food supply for both herbivores and carnivores. The species that have come to thrive on the Antarctica of today would never have been able to thrive on the Antarctica of the early Jurassic period which was some 100 miles further north and much closer to the equator.
Perhaps as a result of its unique choice of environment the Cryolophosaurus was able to survive in an environment that, while cooler than other locations around the globe, offered additional benefits to the more populated areas of the period. Living in the Antarctic provided the Cryolophosaurus not only with plentiful food to sustain itself but also with considerably less competition as well as less of a probability of becoming another large carnivore’s next meal. For the Cryolophosaurus enduring slightly cooler temperatures provided this Theropod with bountiful food, lower levels of competition and a fighting chance at surviving youth because of a lack of the much larger carnivores that stalked the more populated continents of the period. There may not be many Cryolophosaurus to date to attest to their successful choice of habitat; however, perhaps this scarcity of specimens has more to do with the thawing and freezing of the continent itself rather than the actual success of the species. No one can truly know; however, until further excavation sites are revealed with additional Cryolophosaurus specimens that can tell a little more about the lifestyle of this unique dweller of the early Jurassic Antarctic.