10 Fleet-Footed Facts About Coelophysis

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.

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June 20, 2014 - 2:00pm
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