Dicraeosaurus: The Distinctive Sauropod of the Late Jurassic

Dicraeosaurus: The Distinctive Sauropod of the Late Jurassic

In the rich tapestry of dinosaur history, Dicraeosaurus stands out with its unique features and intriguing lifestyle. This Late Jurassic Sauropod is known for its distinctive forked spines and once roamed the lush landscapes of what is now Tanzania. Its existence provides a fascinating window into the world of giant dinosaurs that sheds light on the diversity and complexity of prehistoric life.

Dicraeosaurus, often overshadowed by its larger Sauropod relatives, holds its own place in the annals of paleontological discoveries. With a charm distinct from the more colossal dinosaurs, it offers insights into the varied forms and adaptations of Sauropods during the Late Jurassic Period.

Dicraeosaurus Key Facts

Meaning of nameForked Lizard
Type SpeciesDicraeosaurus hansemanni
SubspeciesDicraeosaurus sattleri
When it Lived163.5 to 150.8 MA
PeriodLate Jurassic
EpochOxfordian to Late/Upper Kimmeridgian
Length46.0 to 49.0 feet
HeightApproximately 6.5 at hips
Weight5.5 to 6.6 tons
MobilityMoved on all four
First Discovery20th century by German Expedition
Described by1914 by Werner Janensch
Location of first findTendaguru Formation of Tanzania
Also found inZimbabwe

Dicraeosaurus Origins, Taxonomy and Timeline

The name translates to ‘Forked Lizard’ from Ancient Greek ‘dikraios’ and ‘sauros’. This name comes from its unique spinal structure. Belonging to the Sauropod group and specifically the Dicraeosaurid family, this genus brings a distinct flavor to the Sauropod lineage. The type species, Dicraeosaurus hansemanni, alongside Dicraeosaurus sattleri, offers a glimpse into the diverse Sauropod fauna of the Late Jurassic.

Illustration of Dicraeosaurus hansemanni, a sauropod dinosaur from the Late Jurassic period, showing its distinctive double-row of spines along its back and tail, highlighting its quadrupedal stance and herbivorous diet.

The timeline of Dicraeosaurus spans the Oxfordian to Late Kimmeridgian Epochs of the Late Jurassic Period, a time marked by the dominance of large dinosaurs. Living approximately 163.5 to 150.8 million years ago, it witnessed significant evolutionary changes in the dinosaur world.

Discovery & Fossil Evidence

The fossils of Dicraeosaurus were discovered in the Tendaguru Formation in Tanzania. This was a significant site for paleontological discoveries during the early 20th century, particularly by German expeditions. These expeditions led to the discovery of many important dinosaur fossils, including those of Dicraeosaurus.

German paleontologist Werner Janensch described both species of Dicraeosaurus in 1914. His work provided the scientific community with invaluable information on this unique Sauropod. The holotype specimen, HMN, played a crucial role in understanding Dicraeosaurus. Subsequent finds in Zimbabwe have further enriched our knowledge of this distinctive dinosaur.

Dicraeosaurus Size and Description

Dicraeosaurus, a distinctive member of the dinosaur world, presents a unique profile among its Sauropod relatives. This Late Jurassic inhabitant defied some typical characteristics of its fellow giants, offering a different perspective on the varied lifestyles of these massive creatures.

Short description of Dicraeosaurus

Unlike many of its Diplodocoid cousins, Dicraeosaurus sported a relatively large head atop a short and wide neck. These 12 compact neck vertebrae were an unusual trait for Sauropods that suggests that it was a low-level browser. It may have fed on vegetation no higher than 9.8 feet above the ground. Dicraeosaurus lacked the common “whiplash” tail seen in other Diplodocoids. This indicates different defensive or communicative behaviors. The most striking feature of this genus was its tall, forked neural spines on the vertebrae. They formed a rough “Y” shape, likely serving as muscle attachment points. These spines, along with its overall body shape, contributed to a unique silhouette in the Late Jurassic landscape.

Size and Weight of Type Species

Size comparison chart of various Dicraeosauridae species, showcasing their relative sizes to a human for scale. Included species are Lingwulong shenqi, Suuwassea emiliae, Amargasaurus cazaui, Brachytrachelopan mesai, Dicraeosaurus hansemanni, and Dicraeosaurus sattai.
Slate Weasel, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Dicraeosaurus, while smaller than many of its Diplodocoid relatives, was still a formidable dinosaur. Measuring between 46.0 to 49.0 feet in length, it was among the larger members of the Dicraeosauridae family. This size indicates a significant presence in its habitat and it likely played a dominant role in its ecological niche.

In terms of weight, it tipped the scales at an estimated 5.5 to 6.6 tons. Despite its relatively shorter stature compared to some Sauropods, this weight underlines its robust and muscular build. Its physical dimensions and unique anatomical features paint a picture of a Sauropod capable of navigating and thriving in the diverse ecosystems of the Late Jurassic Period.

The Dinosaur in Detail

Dicraeosaurus is known from the Tendaguru Formation. It holds a key position in understanding Sauropod evolution. Originally classified as a basal Titanosaur, subsequent studies have narrowed down its place in the dinosaur family tree. It is most recently positioned as a non-titanosaur Titanosauriform. This classification has important implications for our understanding of sauropod diversity and evolution.

The relationship of this dinosaur with basal Titanosaurs is pivotal in unraveling the early evolutionary pathways of these immense creatures. Notable specimens and subsequent reexaminations have highlighted unique aspects of its anatomy, contributing significantly to our knowledge of Jurassic Sauropods.

Interesting Points about Dicraeosaurus

Dicraeosaurus in its Natural Habitat

The Tendaguru region was characterized by its shoreline deposits near an oscillating strandline in the Jurassic. It was a mosaic of various habitats. These beds reveal a landscape that transitioned from sandy marls to marine sandstones, and then to greenish-grey and reddish sandy marls. This geological diversity suggests that Dicraeosaurus inhabited areas ranging from lush, vegetated terrains to more arid, sandy environments. The presence of marine invertebrates in these sediment layers indicates that parts of its habitat were influenced by shallow marine or brackish conditions, providing a rich and varied ecosystem for this dinosaur to explore.

As an herbivore, it likely fed on the abundant plant life that flourished in the Tendaguru region. The presence of freshwater gastropods and evidence of seasonal dry climates suggest a landscape with diverse vegetation, including areas with dense foliage and open, grassy plains. Its diet would have been primarily based on low-lying plants given its physical build and neck structure. The varied plant life would have sustained this Sauropod throughout its life, contributing to its growth and survival in a competitive Jurassic world.

Its feeding habits would have influenced the types of vegetation that thrived in its habitat, possibly leading to ecological changes over time. The Tendaguru Beds continue to provide valuable insights into how dinosaurs like Dicraeosaurus interacted with and influenced their natural surroundings.

Contemporary Dinosaurs

In the lush and varied landscapes of the Late Jurassic Tendaguru Beds, Dicraeosaurus shared its world with a fascinating array of contemporaries. Each of these African dinosaurs played a unique role in the intricate dance of prehistoric life.

Amid the towering trees and verdant foliage, one could imagine the giant Brachiosaurus moving alongside Dicraeosaurus. Their sheer size would have been a commanding presence, yet their peaceful coexistence hints at a segregated feeding strategy. Brachiosaurus, with its towering neck, likely fed from the higher canopies and left the lower vegetation to Dicraeosaurus.

Janenschia was another Sauropod roaming alongside these herbivores. Comparable in size to Dicraeosaurus, Janenschia might have been a direct competitor for food. This competition could have driven Dicraeosaurus to adapt and specialize in certain types of vegetation or feeding areas, illustrating the dynamic nature of ecological relationships.

Predators like Elaphrosaurus and Ceratosaurus added a layer of danger and excitement to this prehistoric world. These carnivorous contemporaries, smaller yet formidable, might not have directly targeted adult Dicraeosaurus due to its size, but they could have posed a threat to the younger or weaker members of the herd. Their presence would have been a constant reminder of the perilous balance of the Jurassic ecosystem.

The spiky and armored Kentrosaurus contrasted these predators. The varied defensive strategies of Kentrosaurus and Dicraeosaurus highlight the multiple paths evolution took to ensure survival in this ancient world.

Together, these dinosaurs created a vibrant and dynamic community where each species contributed to the complex tapestry of life in the Late Jurassic Period. Dicraeosaurus played a crucial role in this prehistoric ecosystem by interacting with each of its contemporaries in a way that shaped the landscape and natural history of its time.

Frequently Asked Questions

When was this dinosaur discovered?

It was discovered in 1914 in the Tendaguru Formation of Tanzania.

What period did it live in?

This African dinosaur lived during the Late Jurassic Period, around 163.5 to 150.8 million years ago.

What type of dinosaur is it?

It is a Sauropod, specifically belonging to the Dicraeosaurid family.

What distinguishes this dinosaur from others?

Its most notable feature is the series of forked spines along its back.

What was this dinosaur’s diet?

It was an herbivore that ate lower-lying vegetation.


This article draws on various sources, including scientific research and fossil evidence. The aim is to provide a comprehensive and accurate overview of Dicraeosaurus. However, our understanding of dinosaurs is continually evolving with new discoveries.

This article was last fact checked: Joey Arboleda, 03-12-2024

Featured Image Credit: ДиБгд, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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