Carnotaurus is a genus of large theropod dinosaur that lived in South America during the Late Cretaceous period, between about 72 and 69.9 million years ago. The only species is Carnotaurus sastrei. Known from a single well-preserved skeleton, it is one of the best-understood theropods from the Southern Hemisphere. The skeleton, found in 1984, was uncovered in the Chubut Province of Argentina from rocks of the La Colonia Formation. Derived from the Latin carno [carnis] (“flesh”) and taurus (“bull”), the name Carnotaurus means “meat-eating bull”, an allusion to the animal’s bull-like horns. Carnotaurus is a derived member of the Abelisauridae, a group of large theropods that occupied the large predatorial niche in the southern Landmasses of Gondwana during the late Cretaceous. The phylogenetic relations of Carnotaurus are uncertain; it might have been closer to either Majungasaurus or Aucasaurus.
Carnotaurus was a lightly built, bipedal predator, measuring 8 to 9 m (26.2 to 29.5 ft) in length and weighing at least 1.35 metric tons (1.33 long tons; 1.49 short tons). As a theropod, Carnotaurus was highly specialized and distinctive. It had thick horns above the eyes, a feature unseen in all other carnivorous dinosaurs, and a very deep skull sitting on a muscular neck. Carnotaurus was further characterized by small, vestigial forelimbs and long and slender hindlimbs. The skeleton is preserved with extensive skin impressions, showing a mosaic of small, non-overlapping scales approximately 5 mm in diameter. The mosaic was interrupted by large bumps that lined the sides of the animal, and there are no hints of feathers.
The distinctive horns and the muscular neck may have been used in fighting conspecifics. According to separate studies, rivaling individuals may have combated each other with quick head blows, by slow pushes with the upper sides of their skulls, or by ramming each other head-on, using their horns as shock absorbers. The feeding habits of Carnotaurus remain unclear: some studies suggest the animal was able to hunt down very large prey such as sauropods, while other studies find it preyed mainly on relatively small animals. Carnotaurus was well adapted for running and was possibly one of the fastest large theropods.
Carnotaurus was a large but lightly built predator. The only known individual was about 8–9 m (26.2–29.5 ft) in length, making Carnotaurus one of the largest abelisaurids. While Ekrixinatosaurus and possibly Abelisaurus, highly incomplete, would have been similar or larger in size, a 2016 study found that only Pycnonemosaurus, at 8.9 m (29.2 ft), was longer than Carnotaurus, which was estimated at 7.8 m (25.6 ft). Its mass is estimated to have been 1,350 kg (1.33 long tons; 1.49 short tons) 1,500 kg (1.5 long tons; 1.7 short tons) and 2,100 kg (2.1 long tons; 2.3 short tons) in separate studies that used different estimation methods. Carnotaurus was a highly specialized theropod, as seen especially in characteristics of the skull, the vertebrae and the forelimbs. The pelvis and hindlimbs, on the other hand, remained relatively conservative, resembling those of the more basal Ceratosaurus. Both the pelvis and hindlimb bones were long and slender. The left thigh bone of the individual measures 103 cm in length, but shows an average diameter of only 11 cm.
Carnotaurus is one of the best-understood genera of the Abelisauridae, a family of large theropods restricted to the ancient southern supercontinent Gondwana. Abelisaurids were the dominant predators in the Late Cretaceous of Gondwana, replacing the carcharodontosaurids and occupying the ecological niche filled by the tyrannosaurids in the northern continents. Several notable traits that evolved within this family, including shortening of the skull and arms as well as peculiarities in the cervical and caudal vertebrae, were more pronounced in Carnotaurus than in any other abelisaurid.
Though relationships within the Abelisauridae are debated, Carnotaurus is consistently shown to be one of the most derived members of the family by cladistical analyses. Its nearest relative might have been either Aucasaurus or Majungasaurus; this ambiguity is largely due to the incompleteness of the Aucasaurus skull material. A recent review suggests that Carnotauruswas not closely related with either Aucasaurus or Majungasaurus, and instead proposed Ilokelesia as its sister taxon.
Carnotaurus is eponymous for two subgroups of the Abelisauridae: the Carnotaurinae and the Carnotaurini. Paleontologists do not universally accept these groups. The Carnotaurinae was defined to include all derived abelisaurids with the exclusion of Abelisaurus, which is considered a basal member in most studies. However, a 2008 review suggested that Abelisaurus was a derived abelisaurid instead. Carnotaurini was proposed to name the clade formed by Carnotaurus and Aucasaurus; only those paleontologists who consider Aucasaurus as the nearest relative of Carnotaurus use this group.