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Compsognathus

With a two feet length and a five pound weight, Compsognathus was long considered to be the smallest dinosaur of all times – this honor now belongs to Microraptor, a dino-bird of about three to four pounds recently discovered – and is also one of the oldest known theropods in the archives of paleontology.

Compsognathus has also been instrumental in studies of the origin of birds. This is because it was found in the same deposits as Archaeopteryx and was about the same size that we can make a comparison between two different primitive species. In the nineteenth century, the similarities between the two fossils often highlighted the link between dinosaurs and birds. Like Sinosauropteryx, it is possible that the Compsognathus had small fibrous structures, such as feathers on the body, but known specimens did not verify this hypothesis.

Fossil specimens

There are only two skeletons of Compsognathus. The first, found in 1859 and dated Upper Jurassic, came from the lithographic limestone beds of Solnhofen, in southern Germany. It was close to the Archeopteryx and had perfectly preserved legs. A lizard, its last meal, was found at the same time. Depending on how one chooses to classify Archaeopteryx, Compsognathus is the only real dinosaur dugged up from these sediments that are mostly populated by pterosaurs and prehistoric fish.

The second skeleton was discovered near Canjuers in France. Compsognathus may have had two-fingered hands. While the French specimen had three metacarpal bones (the bones of the hand), it is not certain that they all had knuckles (the bones of the fingers) attached. Some think that this agile predator had only two fingers, unlike other theropods. Nevertheless, the hands not being intact, it is possible that the phalanx of the third finger were not found or identified, the hand of the French specimen being too badly preserved to accredit this thesis. What is certain is that Sinosauropteryx, its closest relative, had a hand with three fingers.

One of the earliest dinosaur

Presently, Compsognathus is one of the oldest known theropods. A gulf of about 80 million years separates it from the first true dinosaurs like Eoraptor and Herrerasaurus that evolved from bipedal archosaurs in the second half of the Triassic, in South America. The gulf on the timeline seems huge but Compsognathus had an anatomy very similar to that of early dinosaurs, including a small stature and long, thin legs.

Despite this, paleontologists have had a great deal of difficulty locating Compsognathus on the line of theropods evolution. Currently, researchers believe that this dinosaur was close to two other European dinosaurs of similar size, Juravenator and Scipionyx.

An agile predator

Compsognathus was a small and very light predator who depended greatly on its speed and agility to catch its prey, which it then grabbed with its dexterous fingers. This dinosaur also had a long tail which allowed it to maintain its balance during high speed chases; the tail served as a counterweight for the front of its body.

Since Compsognathus was an extremely small dinosaur, it is reasonable to think that it did not attack other theropods but instead preferred to hunt small lizards as evidenced by the stomach contents of the specimen discovered in Solnhofen. It is also possible that it occasionally ate fish or carcasses of small pterosaurs.

There is no evidence to support this, but one can easily imagine a herd of Compsognathus traveling across the plains of Western Europe and hunting in packs to bring down larger dinosaurs. This is the image we were presented in the Jurassic Park movie and this kind of social behavior is not an unusual adaptation for such a puny and vulnerable creature.

One species

Although it is famous, the Compsognathus has been identified from very limited fossil remains, only two specimens. To date, there is only one species of Compsognathus, C. longipes. There was previously a second species that has since been discarded, C. corallestris.

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