10 Elegant Facts About Compsognathus


Zach Tirrell, Wikimedia Commons// CC BY-SA 2.0

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.

Nobu Tamura // CC BY 2.5

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 ...

Durbed // CC BY-SA 3.0

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.  

Bianca Bueno, Flickr // CC BY-SA 3.0

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.