A newfound dinosaur had tiny arms before T. rex made them cool

By | July 7, 2022

Tyrannosaurus rex’s tiny arms have launched a thousand sarcastic memes: I love you this much; can you pass the salt?; row, row, row your … oh.

But back off, snarky jokesters. A newfound species of big-headed carnivorous dinosaur with tiny forelimbs suggests those arms weren’t just an evolutionary punchline. Arm reduction — alongside giant heads — evolved independently in different dinosaur lineages, researchers report July 7 in Current Biology.

Meraxes gigas, named for a dragon in George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” book series, lived between 100 million and 90 million years ago in what’s now Argentina, says Juan Canale, a paleontologist with the country’s CONICET research network who is based in Buenos Aires. Despite the resemblance to T. rex, M. gigas wasn’t a tyrannosaur; it was a carcharodontosaur — a member of a distantly related, lesser-known group of predatory theropod dinosaurs. M. gigas went extinct nearly 20 million years before T. rex walked on Earth.

The M. gigas individual described by Canale and colleagues was about 45 years old and weighed more than four metric tons when it died, they estimate. The fossilized specimen is about 11 meters long, and its skull is heavily ornamented with crests and bumps and tiny hornlets, ornamentations that probably helped attract mates.

Why these dinosaurs had such tiny arms is an enduring mystery. They weren’t for hunting: Both T. rex and M. gigas used their massive heads to hunt prey (SN: 10/22/18). The arms may have shrunk so they were out of the way during the frenzy of group feeding on carcasses.

But, Canale says, M. gigas’ arms were surprisingly muscular, suggesting they were more than just an inconvenient limb. One possibility is that the arms helped lift the animal from a reclining to a standing position. Another is that they aided in mating — perhaps showing a mate some love.