CLOSE
Original image

10 Fleet-Footed Facts About Coelophysis

Original image

Matt Celeskey

Coelophysis was but a humble player in an ecosystem teeming with strange and wonderful creatures. Yet this early dino proved to be remarkably successful, leaving not only a treasure trove of fossils in its wake, but also a hunter’s-eye look at the world it called home.

1. Some of the Oldest-Known Wishbones Belonged to Coelophysis.

Technically known as “furculae,” these forked structures are formed when an animal’s collar bones fuse. Sadly, as of this writing, the actual wish-granting ability of Coelophysis furculae has yet to be empirically verified.

2. Its Name Means “Hollow Form.”

Ryan Somma

Like most modern dinosaurs (a.k.a.: birds), this agile predator had hollow limb bones which lightened its frame.

3. … And, By the Way, Coelophysis is Also Part of a Heated Naming Controversy.

Wikimedia Commons

The whole thing started as a bad joke. In 1969, paleontologist Mike Raath discovered a new carnivorous dino he called Syntarsus (“Fused Ankle”). Years later, a group of insect scientists—led by Michael Ivie of Montana State University—learned that the name Syntarsus had already been given to a beetle. Since they’d caught the blunder, Ivie’s team had the right to formally rechristen Raath’s dinosaur.

So what new moniker did they come up with? “Megapnosaurus,” which literally means “Big, Dead Lizard.” Raath wasn’t amused. Apart from failing to contact him before tampering with his animal, these would-be comedians added insult to injury by giving it a purposefully stupid name. However, many specialists now contend that “Megapnosaurus” and Coelophysis really belonged to the same genus. If true, the word Coelophysis (being considerably older) has seniority and—hence—would cancel out Ivie and company’s infamous alternative. 

4. It’s the Official State Fossil of New Mexico.

Wikimedia Commons

Coelophysis first came to scientific light in the “Land of Enchantment” during America’s gilded age and is prominently displayed at museums and colleges all over the 47th state.

5. Coelophysis Shared its Habitat With Some Truly Incredible Animals.

Wikimedia Commons

Back in the late Triassic period (roughly 227-205 million years ago), North America was also home to an eclectic array of non-dinosaurian reptiles, including the heavily-armored aetosaurs, semi-aquatic phytosaurs, and ferocious rauisuchians. Some bore a striking resemblance to present-day critters while others seem like the products of a cheesy sci-fi flick. As biologist Kevin Padian once put it, “Being in the Triassic [would have been] like visiting the intergalactic bar that Luke Skywalker encounters in the original Star Wars movie: the characters look weird but vaguely familiar … and most of them would kill you as soon as look at you.” 

6. Georgia O’Keeffe Found Coelophysis Intriguing.

Ryan Somma

Located in northern New Mexico, Ghost Ranch has become one of the western hemisphere’s most famous bone beds thanks to the discovery of several hundred Coelophysis specimens in the property’s rocky outcrops. O’Keeffe purchased a house there in 1940, and used to enjoy visiting local paleontologists at the ranch’s dig sites.

7. Coelophysis Was Briefly Acquitted of Cannibalism.

NHM

Talk about bad press! In 1947, two well-preserved specimens were exposed with what appeared to be the corpses of smaller Coelophysis lodged in their guts. Before you could shout “Hannibal Lecter,” journalists leapt to label the dinosaur a cannibal.

Decades later, Coelophysis was seemingly absolved of this charge. A 2002 re-examination showed that one defendant in our trial had merely fallen onto a nearby juvenile before expiring. Meanwhile, it turned out that the other suspect’s belly actually contained a crocodile-like reptile and not a member of its own species. Case closed, right? Not so fast.

Fossilized feces peppered with bits of baby Coelophysis bones have also turned up inside other skeletons’ intestinal cavities, practically proving that the dino was guilty as charged all along.

8. According to Some Experts, Coelophysis Bit like a Komodo Dragon.

Wikimedia Commons

Pointing to the dimensions of its jaws and the blade-like shape of its teeth, paleontologist Stephen E. Jasinski argues that Coelophysis’ mouth was designed to inflict “slashing” bites as these man-sized monitor lizards do today.

9. Coelophysis Was Originally Unearthed During an Ugly Showdown Called “The Bone Wars.”

Ryan Somma

This fossil-hunting feud was so epic that it frankly deserves its own grandiose HBO miniseries (“Game of Bones”, anyone?). Edward Drinker Cope and Othneil Charles Marsh were rival scientists based on the east coast. From 1877 to 1892, each man toiled to out-perform his adversary in the field—and tarnish his reputation back at home. Underhanded briberies abounded, precious fossils were deliberately destroyed, and even the federal government was dragged into their fray. Before the dust finally settled, several now-iconic dino species—including Coelophysis, Triceratops, and Stegosaurus—had been discovered.

10. NASA once Launched a Coelophysis Skull Into Orbit.

We defy anyone to come up with a topic cooler than dinosaurs in space. On January 22nd, 1998, the Endeavor shuttle took off for an eight-day mission. Aboard this vessel was one of the oddest hitchhikers imaginable: a Coelophysis skull sent to “symbolize the bond between Earth’s history and mankind’s future.” After visiting Russia’s Mir station, the prehistoric passenger was returned to its native planet.

Original image
Universal Pictures
arrow
Animals
What 6 Dinosaurs from Jurassic Park Really Looked Like
Original image
Universal Pictures

by Alex Carter

In the 24 years that have passed since the original Jurassic Park hit theaters, what we know about dinosaurs has changed—a lot. Here's some of the new research that may change how you imagine these ancient animals, along with illustrations of what the animals may have looked like when they actually roamed the Earth.

1. VELOCIRAPTOR

Movie:

Velociraptors in Jurassic Park.
Universal Pictures

Reality:

A drawing of a Velociraptor.
Matt Martyniuk, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY SA-3.0

A far cry from the large and vicious hunters of the Jurassic Park movies, velociraptors were in fact small and covered in feathers. More like vicious turkeys, if you will. The dinosaur in the movies was based on the Deinonychus, a much larger species whose name, appropriately, means “terrible claw.” (Even Deinonychus wasn't quite as big as the raptors portrayed in the movie.) That said, other large raptors have since been discovered, including the entire genus Utahraptor. (Its discoverers originally considered naming the type species Utahraptor spielbergi in hopes that the director would finance their research, but the name-for-funds deal never went through, so it was ultimately called Utahraptor ostrommaysorum.)

2. TYRANNOSAURUS REX

Movie:

A T. Rex in Jurassic Park.
Universal Pictures

Reality:

A feathered version of a T. Rex.
A feathered version of a T. Rex.

Large. Imposing. Fluffy? Apparently, the T. rex looked much, much stranger than the beast brought to life on the silver screen. Its face might have been covered with patches of armored skin and large scales, its eyes were placed much farther forward than other dinosaurs, and it carried itself rather horizontally, not upright, as most people still imagine it. It's thought from discoveries in close relatives that T. rex was covered in some feathers for a part of its life (especially as a juvenile, as seen in The Lost World), although the details remain hotly debated. Also debated are what it used its arms for: Hypotheses have ranged from a role in reproduction to lifting itself up (which is increasingly considered unlikely) to nothing at all.

3. COMPSOGNATHUS

Movie:

A Compsognathus in Jurassic Park.
Universal Pictures

Reality:

A feathered version of a Compsognathus.
A feathered version of a Compsognathus.

This dinosaur was actually bigger in real life, although not by much. The smaller version depicted in the movies was based on what is now believed to be a young (and therefore small) Compsognathus. While many dinosaurs of its type were covered in feathers, there has been a notable lack of evidence about whether compies, as they're known, had feathers or scales. Most artists tend to draw simple proto-feathers, though; the result is an animal that looks more furry than feathery—and remarkably like a stretched rat.

4. TRICERATOPS

Movie:

A Triceratops in Jurassic Park.
Universal Pictures

Reality:

These creatures are generally portrayed as leathery and pointy—a bit like a rhinoceros designed by committee. The reality is somewhat stranger: They actually resembled porcupines. Some paleontologists believe that several nipple-shaped protrusions in their skin suggest where bristles would have been. In other areas, their skin was likely scaled rather than leathery. Their horns are another mystery. A 2009 study indicated that they were used largely for combat with other Triceratops, but they probably had a role in courtship as well.

5. BRACHIOSAURUS

Movie:

A Brachiosaurus in Jurassic Park.
Universal Pictures

Reality:

A drawing of a Brachiosaurus.

In Jurassic Park, the Brachiosaurus is the first dinosaur seen after everyone arrives on the island, memorably rearing up to get at some particularly delicious leafage. But that behavior is now considered unlikely. The book Biology of the Sauropod Dinosaurs attempted to calculate if Brachiosaurs were able to rear on their hind legs and concluded, “Brachiosaurus would have expended considerably more energy [than a Diplodocus], could not have attained a stable upright pose, and would have risked serious injury to its forefeet when descending too rapidly.” Dr. Heinrich Mallison noted that it “was probably unlikely to use a bipedal … posture regularly and for an extended period of time. Although this dinosaur certainly could have reared up, for example during mating, this was probably a rare and short-lived event.”

6. SPINOSAURUS

Movie:

A Spinosaurus in Jurassic Park III.
Universal Pictures

Reality:

A drawing of a Spinosaurus.

Joschua Knüppe, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

The Spinosaurus was discovered only a few years after the Tyrannosaurus, but it never attracted fans in quite the same way. The fossils were destroyed in World War II during an Allied bombing raid on Munich, and the dinosaur became largely forgotten. However, Jurassic Park III resurrected the dinosaur's fame with a showdown that saw the Spinosaurus kill a Tyrannosaurus. Many fans cried foul, and the size of the Spinosaurus was indeed a mistake … in reality, it was much bigger.

It would have been up to three times heavier and 20 feet longer; a creature on the higher end of that range would have been bigger than even Jurassic World's (invented) I. rex. But could Spinosaurus have taken on a T. rex and lived? Almost certainly not. While physically bigger and armed with a bigger jaw, it was much less powerful, as most paleontologists now believe Spinosaurus used its long jaws for fishing. It actually lived mostly in the water.

Original image
YouTube
arrow
science
Meet Spinosaurus, the Giant Dinosaur That Was Scarier Than T. Rex
Original image
YouTube

Contrary to what the film Jurassic Park may have led you to believe, Tyrannosaurus rex wasn't the largest—or scariest—dinosaur to ever roam the land. That honor goes to Spinosaurus, a genus of predators whose members could grow up to 50 feet long. They roamed North Africa during the mid-Cretaceous Period, around 100 million years ago.

Learn more about Spinosaurus—and the era's other fearsome creatures, which included carnivorous crocodiles and enormous flying reptiles—by watching the TED-Ed video below.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios