10 Facts About Carnotaurus, the "Meat-Eating Bull"

Ever since its starring role in the late, unlamented Steven Spielberg TV show Terra Nova, Carnotaurus has been rising quickly in the worldwide dinosaur rankings.

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The Name Carnotaurus Means "Meat-Eating Bull"

Carnotaurus skeleton

Roberto Murta/Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

When he unearthed its single, well-preserved fossil from an Argentinean fossil bed, in 1984, the famous paleontologist Jose F. Bonaparte was struck by this new dinosaur's prominent horns. He eventually bestowed the name Carnotaurus, or "meat-eating bull," on his discovery—one of the rare instances in which a dinosaur has been named after a mammal (another example is Hippodraco, the "horse dragon," a genus of ornithopod).

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Carnotaurus Had Shorter Arms Than the T. Rex

Carnotaurus illustration

Fred Wierum/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0

You thought Tyrannosaurus Rex had tiny arms? Well, T. Rex looked like Stretch Armstrong next to Carnotaurus, which possessed such puny front limbs (its forearms were only one-quarter the length of its upper arms) that it may as well have had no forelimbs at all. Somewhat making up for this deficit, Carnotaurus was equipped with unusually long, sleek, powerful legs, which may have made it one of the fastest theropods in its 2,000-pound weight class.

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Carnotaurus Lived in Late Cretaceous South America


Emőke Dénes/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0

One of the most distinctive things about Carnotaurus is where this dinosaur lived: South America, which was hardly well-represented in the giant theropod department during the late Cretaceous period (about 70 million years ago). Oddly enough, the largest-ever South American theropod, Giganotosaurus, lived a full 30 million years earlier; by the time Carnotaurus came on the scene, most of the meat-eating dinosaurs in South America only weighed a few hundred pounds or less.

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Carnotaurus Is the Only Identified Horned Theropod

Carnotaurus skeleton

Julian Fong/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

During the Mesozoic Era, the vast majority of horned dinosaurs were ceratopsians: the plant-eating behemoths exemplified by Triceratops and Pentaceratops. To date, Carnotaurus is the only meat-eating dinosaur known to have possessed horns, six-inch protrusions of bone atop its eyes that may have supported even longer structures made of keratin (the same protein that comprises human fingernails). These horns were likely a sexually selected characteristic, wielded by Carnotaurus males in intra-species combat for the right to mate with females.

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We Know a Lot About Carnotaurus' Skin

Carnotaurus illustration

DiBgd/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0

Not only is Carnotaurus represented in the fossil record by a single, nearly complete skeleton; paleontologists have also recovered fossil impressions of this dinosaur's skin, which was (somewhat surprisingly) scaly and reptilian. We say "somewhat surprisingly" because many theropods of the late Cretaceous period possessed feathers, and even T. Rex hatchlings may have been tufted. This isn't to say that Carnotaurus lacked any feathers at all; to determine that conclusively would require additional fossil specimens.

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Carnotaurus Was a Type of Dinosaur Known as an "Abelisaur"

Skorpiovenator, a close relative of Carnotaurus.

Nobu Tamura/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0

Abelisaurs—named after the eponymous member of the breed, Abelisaurus—were a family of meat-eating dinosaurs restricted to the part of the Gondwanan supercontinent that later split off into South America. One of the largest known abelisaurs, Carnotaurus was closely related to Aucasaurus, Skorpiovenator (the "scorpion hunter"), and Ekrixinatosaurus (the "explosion-born lizard"). Since tyrannosaurs never made it down to South America, abelisaurs can be considered their south-of-the-border counterparts.

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Carnotaurus Was One of the Fastest Predators of the Mesozoic Era


Fred Wierum/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0

According to a recent analysis, the "caudofemoralis" muscles of Carnotaurus' thighs weighed up to 300 pounds apiece, accounting for a significant proportion of this dinosaur's 2,000-pound weight. Combined with the shape and orientation of this dinosaur's tail, this implies that Carnotaurus could sprint at unusually high speeds, though not at the sustained clip of its slightly smaller theropod cousins, the ornithomimid ("bird mimic") dinosaurs of North America and Eurasia.

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Carnotaurus May Have Swallowed Its Prey Whole

Carnotaurus sketch

Offy/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0 

As fast as it was, Carnotaurus wasn't equipped with a very powerful bite, only a fraction of the pounds-per-inch wielded by larger predators like T. Rex. This has led some paleontologists to conclude that Carnotaurus preyed on the much smaller animals of its South American habitat, though not everyone concurs: another school of thought speculates that, since Carnotaurus still had a bite twice as powerful as that of an American alligator, it might have teamed up to prey on plus-sized titanosaurs!

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Carnotaurus Shared Its Territory With Snakes, Turtles, and Mammals


Dmitry Bogdanov/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0

Rather unusually, the remains of the only identified specimen of Carnotaurus are not associated with any other dinosaurs, but rather turtles, snakes, crocodiles, mammals, and marine reptiles. While this doesn't mean that Carnotaurus was the only dinosaur of its habitat (there's always the possibility that researchers will unearth, say, a mid-sized hadrosaur), it was almost certainly the apex predator of its ecosystem, enjoying a diet more varied than that of the average theropod.

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Carnotaurus Couldn't Save Terra Nova From Extinction

Carnotaurus skeleton

Gastón Cuello/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0

One of the admirable things about the 2011 TV series Terra Nova was the casting of the relatively obscure Carnotaurus as the lead dinosaur (though, in a later episode, a rampaging Spinosaurus steals the show). Unfortunately, Carnotaurus proved to be much less popular than the "Velociraptors" of Jurassic Park and Jurassic World, and Terra Nova was unceremoniously canceled after a four-month run (by which time most viewers had ceased to care.)

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Strauss, Bob. "10 Facts About Carnotaurus, the "Meat-Eating Bull"." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/things-to-know-carnotaurus-1093778. Strauss, Bob. (2020, August 28). 10 Facts About Carnotaurus, the "Meat-Eating Bull". Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/things-to-know-carnotaurus-1093778 Strauss, Bob. "10 Facts About Carnotaurus, the "Meat-Eating Bull"." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/things-to-know-carnotaurus-1093778 (accessed June 5, 2023).