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10 Elegant Facts About Compsognathus

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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Prehistoric Ticks Once Drank Dinosaur Blood, Fossil Evidence Shows
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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]

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The Clever Adaptations That Helped Some Animals Become Gigantic
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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.

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