CLOSE

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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
science
Prehistoric Ticks Once Drank Dinosaur Blood, Fossil Evidence Shows
iStock
iStock

Ticks plagued the dinosaurs, too, as evidenced by a 99-million-year old parasite preserved inside a hunk of ancient amber. Entomologists who examined the Cretaceous period fossil noticed that the tiny arachnid was latched to a dinosaur feather—the first evidence that the bloodsuckers dined on dinos, according to The New York Times. These findings were recently published in the journal Nature Communications.

Ticks are one of the most common blood-feeding parasites. But experts didn’t know what they ate in prehistoric times, as parasites and their hosts are rarely found together in the fossil record. Scientists assumed they chowed down on early amphibians, reptiles, and mammals, according to NPR. They didn’t have hard evidence until study co-author David Grimaldi, an entomologist at the American Museum of History, and his colleagues spotted the tick while perusing a private collection of Myanmar amber.

A 99-million-year-old tick encased in amber, grasping a dinosaur feather.
Cornupalpatum burmanicum hard tick entangled in a feather. a Photograph of the Burmese amber piece (Bu JZC-F18) showing a semicomplete pennaceous feather. Scale bar, 5 mm. b Detail of the nymphal tick in dorsal view and barbs (inset in a). Scale bar, 1 mm. c Detail of the tick’s capitulum (mouthparts), showing palpi and hypostome with teeth (arrow). Scale bar, 0.1 mm. d Detail of a barb. Scale bar, 0.2 mm. e Drawing of the tick in dorsal view indicating the point of entanglement. Scale bar, 0.2 mm. f Detached barbule pennulum showing hooklets on one of its sides (arrow in a indicates its location but in the opposite side of the amber piece). Scale bar, 0.2 mm
Peñalver et al., Nature Communications

The tick is a nymph, meaning it was in the second stage of its short three-stage life cycle when it died. The dinosaur it fed on was a “nanoraptor,” or a tiny dino that was roughly the size of a hummingbird, Grimaldi told The Times. These creatures lived in tree nests, and sometimes met a sticky end after tumbling from their perches into hunks of gooey resin. But just because the nanoraptor lived in a nest didn’t mean it was a bird: Molecular dating pinpointed the specimen as being at least 25 million years older than modern-day avians.

In addition to ticks, dinosaurs likely also had to deal with another nest pest: skin beetles. Grimaldi’s team located several additional preserved ticks, and two were covered in the insect’s fine hairs. Skin beetles—which are still around today—are scavengers that live in aerial bird homes and consume molted feathers.

“These findings shed light on early tick evolution and ecology, and provide insights into the parasitic relationship between ticks and ancient relatives of birds, which persists today for modern birds,” researchers concluded in a news release.

[h/t The New York Times]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
science
The Clever Adaptations That Helped Some Animals Become Gigantic
iStock
iStock

Imagine a world in which eagle-sized dragonflies buzzed through the air and millipedes as long as kayaks scuttled across Earth. "Ick"-factor aside for bug haters, these creatures aren't the product of a Michael Crichton fever dream. In fact, they actually existed around 300 million years ago, as MinuteEarth host Kate Yoshida explains.

How did the prehistoric ancestors of today’s itty-bitty insects get so huge? Oxygen, and lots of it. Bugs "breathe by sponging up air through their exoskeletons, and the available oxygen can only diffuse so far before getting used up," Yoshida explains. And when an atmospheric spike in the colorless gas occurred, this allowed the critters' bodies to expand to unprecedented dimensions and weights.

But that's just one of the clever adaptations that allowed some creatures to grow enormous. Learn more about these adaptations—including the ingenious evolutionary development that helped the biggest dinosaurs to haul their cumbersome bodies around, and the pair of features that boosted blue whales to triple their size, becoming the largest animals ever on Earth—by watching MinuteEarth's video below.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios