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A photo of a newly discovered dinosaur skull.

Torvosaurus gurneyi's big, strong skull enabled it to take down prey.

PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRISTOPHE HENDRICKX

Christine Dell'Amore

National Geographic

Published March 5, 2014

A new species of dinosaur found in Portugal was big—and bad, a new study says.

Torvosaurus gurneyi, perhaps the biggest predatory dinosaur yet found in Europe, was an especially strong carnivore that likely used its four-inch-long (ten-centimeter-long), blade-shaped teeth and sharp-clawed forearms to rip into its prey.

The 32-foot-long (10-meter-long) beast roamed the Iberian Peninsula—home to modern-day Spain, Portugal, Andorra, and parts of France—about 150 million years ago during the late Jurassic period. (See pictures of life during the Jurassic.)

Christophe Hendrickx, a Ph.D. student at the New University of Lisbon in Portugal, discovered the giant while studying bones believed to belong to Torvosaurus tanneri, a related species that lived in North America's Rocky Mountain region around the same time. When the continents were connected as part of the supercontinent Pangaea, dinosaurs could potentially have migrated from North America to Europe or vice versa.

But upon closer inspection, these bones—taken from the fossil-rich Lourinhã Formation in west-central Portugal—didn't look like T. tanneri.

For one, the upper jaw had fewer teeth, this bone and the tail vertebrae differed—all suggesting that Hendrickx and supervisor Octávio Mateus had revealed a new species. (Watch video: "Dinosaurs 101.")

"I was very lucky," Hendrickx said. "It's a dream come true."

An illustration of a dinosaur.
ILLUSTRATION BY SERGEY KRASOVSKIY, STOCKTREK IMAGES/CORBIS
Scientists initially thought the T. gurneyi fossils belonged to related species Torvosaurus tanneri, pictured.

T. Rex Of Its Day

The four- to five-ton T. gurneyi—named after paleo-illustrator James Gurney—was part of a group of big two-legged meat-eaters called megalosaurs.

Megalosaurs are little understood, partly because large predators are usually much rarer than their prey, and thus there are fewer fossil remains to study, noted paleontologist Matt Lamanna, of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.

But paleontologists do know that megalosaurs looked somewhat like Tyrannosaurus rex, and both may have been covered with a light fuzz that was the precursor of feathers, study leader Hendrickx noted. (Related: ""Beautiful" Squirrel-Tail Dinosaur Fossil Upends Feather Theory.")

Even though T. gurneyi was smaller overall than T. rex, the newfound animal had heavily muscled forearms with formidable claws, thick legs, and elongated skulls that allowed for a devastating bite.

Indeed, as University of Maryland vertebrate paleontologist Thomas R. Holtz, Jr., puts it, T. gurneyi was a "big-bruiser predator"—using brute force instead of speed or surprise to take down its victims. (Also see "Newfound Giant Dinosaur Ruled Before T. Rex.")

Unlike T. rex, which may have grabbed and crushed its prey to death with its jaws, T. gurneyi "probably would've taken a chunk out of its prey, sat back, and waited for it to die," said Lamanna.

Both experts had caveats about the authors' assertion that T. gurneyi is the biggest meat-eating dinosaur in Europe. (Quiz: Test your dinosaur IQ.)

"It might be," said Lamanna, explaining that there are other known predatory dinosaurs in Europe that could have grown to the same size.

Holtz added by email, "This is the largest KNOWN land predator in European history—[it's] always important to keep that qualifier."

Jurassic Serengeti

But why was it so big?

Study leader Hendrickx suspects the dinosaur's size has to do with the sheer number of herbivores—including stegosaurs and long-necked sauropods—that lived alongside T. gurneyi.

Such a range of prey would have provided enough food to support the existence of several huge carnivore species, each of which had their own niche in the environment, said Hendrickx, whose study was published March 5 in the journal PLOS ONE.

Holtz likened this late Jurassic ecosystem to today's Serengeti, with "a number of different large-, medium-, and small-bodied carnivore species living side by side, just as in the Serengeti there are lions, spotted hyenas, leopards, hunting dogs, jackals, etc., etc., living next to each other."

Fresh off his first discovery, Hendrickx is ready to study more fossils from Portugal that could yield even more new dinosaurs.

Now, he quipped, "I have to convince my supervisor."

Follow Christine Dell'Amore on Twitter and Google+.

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