Sauropelta
Prehistoric Times|Winter 2021 #136
A flock of Deinonychus dart from the dense forest they had been moving through across the broad floodplain to the tree line on the far side.
Phil Hore

Although highly intelligent and dangerous, the sheer size and thick-armored skin of the numerous dinosaurs feeding along the waterway afford these herbivores the luxury of barely registering the movement of the small predators.

Short and squat bodied, these nodosaurs slowly march along, with their heads lowered and swinging back and forth as they feed. Each animal keeps its distance from the next because of the large cone-shaped bony spears projecting from their shoulders.

Broad feet with thick webbing between the toes allow these heavy animals to move across the wet, slick mud that makes up the floor of the flood plain. Here they feed on the rich plant life—such as young seedling cycads and conifers—that sprout along this fertile region.

Not too far in the future this waterway will expand until it covers much of central North America, splitting the continent into two separate landmasses, but that’s a problem for the descendants of these early ankylosaurs. Today it’s a rich region full of life, all surviving off the occasional floods washing sediments in from the interior of the continent, turning the braided river plain into a roaring torrent of death and destruction.

This is the last time that many of the original American dinosaur species dominate the land because the future will belong to invasive species from Asia. Dinosaurs like the tyrannosaurs and ceratopians—groups that would evolve into iconic species like T. rex and Triceratops—would slowly replace the allosaurs, stegosaurs, and sauropods of the Jurassic.

From behind the herd, a large figure moves out of the tree line the raptor flock just escaped from. Most of the nodosaurs were scattered along the river edge, but a few individuals had separated to feed off a small copse of bushes sitting under a dozen or so tall trees between the plain and the forest. These are what have drawn the Acrocanthosaurus. Scars across the enormous theropod’s tree-trunk legs are proof of how dangerous hunting ankylosaurs could be, especially in a herd, but solitary animals are a different matter. Alone, they are more controllable as long as a predator holds its nerve. Even an individual Sauropelta can be dangerous if not dealt with carefully.

The odds of a successful hunt are even greater if there are two hunters, and stepping out of the tree line behind the first theropod is another, even larger Acrocanthosaurus. Both animals have been spending the last week in the ornate, complex mating ritual of the species, but even when trying to win over a mate, one had to stop and eat occasionally.

While the first Acrocanthosaurus stands its ground, as though following some unseen communication, the second walks toward the water’s edge, as though moving for a drink. This is a ruse: instead it’s moving out of eyeline so that it can then start circling around the bushes.

Once the second animal is in place, the first Acrocanthosaurus starts walking toward the bushes and the two animals feeding between them. One of these crops a large mouthful of leaves and begins munching and luckily looks about for any danger—and finds some. With a muffled bleat the herbivore turns and faces the oncoming predator, swinging its enormous forward-facing shoulder spikes toward the approaching danger. Sensing trouble, the second herbivore nearby automatically repeats the movement.

Two victims were still manageable, especially because the actual attack was going to come from the rear, but as the first Acrocanthosaurus took another step forward, expecting its mate to strike, nothing happened.

In frustration the predator raised its vision from the herbivores to the water’s edge behind the bushes, looking to throw its mate a displeased, dirty look. Instead, it found itself staring at a barren riverbank.

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