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10 Elegant Facts About Compsognathus

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The svelte Compsognathus could have squeezed inside a typical shopping cart—but for sensitivity’s sake, you’d probably want to avoid steering it through the poultry aisle…

1. Paleontologists Only Have Two Compsognathus Skeletons to Work With.

These came from Germany and France in 1859 and 1971, respectively. Since then, some possible Compsognathus teeth have been found in Portugal as well.

2. This Dinosaur Was a Consummate Lizard-Eater.

Remember those two skeletons we mentioned in our last bullet point? Both came with lizard bones preserved in their stomachs. Speaking of last meals, scientists know that a closely-related dino called Sinosauropteryx also enjoyed reptilian main courses—along with some fresh mammal on the side. Bon appetit!

3. Adults Had Modest Proportions.

The first Compsognathus ever recovered was a 3-foot juvenile. Fully-grown individuals (like the one later found in France) were roughly 4 feet in length and weighed around 5.5 pounds.

4. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) Screwed Up its Scientific Name.

Somebody at Universal Studios forgot to do his homework. Compsognathus means “elegant jaw” and, so far, the only recognized species is Compsognathus longipes. Yet, halfway through the movie, a fleece-clad beardsman modeled after real-life paleontologist Robert Bakker starts rambling about “Compsognathus triassicus." Still, the film’s Compie puppets were awfully impressive; you can see them in the video above. 

5. Experts Used to Think That It Only Had Two Fingers on Each Hand.

The German specimen’s forelimbs were imperfectly preserved. For over a century, it looked like Compsognathus was stuck flashing permanent, two-fingered peace signs. Paleontologists wouldn’t learn that it actually boasted three digits per hand until the French skeleton came along.

6. Compsognathus Dwelled in Jurassic Lagoons ...

It’s known exclusively from fine-grained limestone deposits teeming with fossilized marine life (fish, crustaceans, etc.). Winged reptiles called pterosaurs shared Compsognathus’ beachside property, as did the feathered, bird-like Archaeopteryx.

7. … But Likely Wasn’t a Hardcore Swimmer

In the late 1970s and '80s, a few paleontologists believed that Compsognathus had broad flippers for hands—which would have been perfect for an amphibious lifestyle. This weird notion has since been debunked. 

8. The Animal Probably Had Dinofuzz.

Like many small, carnivorous dinosaurs—including Sinosauropteryx, its Chinese relative—Compsognathus almost certainly had a nice coat of downy feathers (though, thus far, there’s no direct proof). 

9. According to One Estimate, Compsognathus Could Cruise at 40 Miles Per Hour.  


A 2007 study tried determining how fast several meat-eating dinos ran by using their comparative measurements and hypothetical weights. If the results are to be believed, Compsognathus would have run circles around T. rex, which reached a top projected speed of 18 mph.

10. Compsognathus Helped Scientists Eventually Recognize the Link Between Dinosaurs and Birds.

Today, the evidence is conclusive: Birds evolved from—and are—dinosaurs. Period. But 140 years ago, this simple, true statement would have sounded absurd. With its toothy maw and feathery wings, the discovery of raven-sized Archaeopteryx during the 1860s finally convinced many scientists that our feathered friends had reptilian ancestors.

But what did these mystery reptiles look like?  Anatomist Thomas Henry Huxley (whose badass nickname was “Darwin’s bulldog”) noted many similarities between Archaeopteryx and Compsognathus and speculated that whatever gave rise to early birds strongly resembled this miniscule dinosaur. As usual, Huxley was way ahead of the curve.

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The T. Rex Fossil That Caused a Scientific Controversy
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In the early 2000s, a team of paleontologists inadvertently set the stage for a years-long scientific saga after they excavated a well-preserved partial Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton from Montana's Hell Creek formation. While transporting the bones, the scientists were forced to break a femur. Pieces from inside the thigh bone fell out, and these fragments were sent to Mary Schweitzer, a paleontologist at North Carolina State University, for dissection and analysis.

Under a microscope, Schweitzer thought she could make out what appeared to be cells and tiny blood vessels inside the pieces, similar to those commonly discovered inside fresh bone. Further analysis revealed what appeared to be animal proteins, which sent Schweitzer reeling. Could she have just discovered soft tissue inside dinosaur leg bone many millions of years old, found in ancient sediments laid down during the Cretaceous period? Or was the soft stuff simply a substance known as biofilm, which would have been formed by microbes after the bone had already fossilized?

Following a seemingly endless series of debates, studies, and papers, Schweitzer's hunch was proven correct. That said, this contentious conclusion wasn't made overnight. To hear the whole saga—and learn what it means for science—watch the recent episode of Stated Clearly below, which was first spotted by website Earth Archives.

[h/t Earth Archives]

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Fossilized Poop Shows Some Herbivorous Dinosaurs Loved a Good Crab Dinner
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Lead author Karen Chin of the University of Colorado Boulder
Courtesy the University of Colorado Boulder

Scientists can learn a lot about the prehistoric world through very, very old poop. Just recently, researchers from the University of Colorado-Boulder and Kent State University studying fossilized dinosaur poop discovered that some herbivores weren't as picky about their diets as we thought. Though they mostly ate plants, large dinosaurs living in Utah 75 million years ago also seem to have eaten prehistoric crustaceans, as Nature News reports.

The new study, published in Scientific Reports, finds that large dinosaurs of the Late Cretaceous period seem to have eaten crabs, along with rotting wood, based on the content of their coprolites (the more scientific term for prehistoric No. 2). The fossilized remains of dinos' bathroom activities were found in the Kaiparowits rock formation in Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a known hotspot for pristine Late Cretaceous fossils.

"The large size and woody contents" of the poop suggest that they were created by dinosaurs that were well-equipped to process fiber in their diets, as the study puts it, leading the researchers to suggest that the poop came from big herbivores like hadrosaurs, whose remains have been found in the area before.

Close up scientific images of evidence of crustaceans in fossilized poop.
Chin et al., Scientific Reports (2017)

While scientists previously thought that plant-eating dinosaurs like hadrosaurs only ate vegetation, these findings suggest otherwise. "The diet represented by the Kaiparowits coprolites would have provided a woody stew of plant, fungal, and invertebrate tissues," the researchers write, including crabs (Yum). These crustaceans would have provided a big source of calcium for the dinosaurs, and the other invertebrates that no doubt lived in the rotting logs would have provided a good source of protein.

But they probably didn't eat the rotting wood all year, instead munching on dead trees seasonally or during times when other food sources weren’t available. Another hypothesis is that these "ancient fecal producers," as the researchers call them, might have eaten the rotting wood, with its calcium-rich crustaceans and protein-laden invertebrates, during egg production, similar to the feeding patterns of modern birds during breeding season.

Regardless of the reason, these findings could change how we think about what big dinosaurs ate.

[h/t Nature News]

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