How bird-like can a dinosaur get before it crosses the line and becomes a true-blue avian? At one point or another, fuzzy little Shuvuuia, which lived 75 million years ago in what is now Mongolia, has been placed on both sides of the fence.
1. Shuvuuia Had Tiny, Rice-Shaped Teeth.
A few dozen lay inside this dino’s narrow mouth. Unlike the flesh-slicing chompers of, say, Velociraptor, these teeth weren’t serrated, so tough meat probably wasn’t on the menu.
2. It Was Turkey Sized.
Let’s take a moment to acknowledge how outrageously diverse dinosaur body sizes were. Everyone loves gawking at giants like Argentinosaurus, which stretched over 100 feet long and probably weighed well over 50 metric tons. But then there’s Shuvuuia’s cousin Parvicursor, a 15-inch pipsqueak that was lighter than your average can of tuna.
3. Its Arms Were Awfully Strange.
Shuvuuia’s forelimbs were short, stubby, and muscular with a peculiar peg shape. They jutted out from its torso and ended in bizarre hands with three digits—two useless dinky ones and one massive, clawed thumb.
4. Shuvuuia May Have Dug Up Termites.
This is by far the most popular hypothesis about what they did with those puzzling arms. Advocates of the idea point to modern mammals called pangolins which rip apart insect mounds with their short, clawed, muscular front legs.
5. Its Relatives Have Been Found on Four Continents.
Shuvuuia is perhaps the best-known alvarezsaurid, an interesting, stout-armed gang which also includes Canada’s Albertonykus, the Transylvanian Heptasteornis, and Patagonykus of Argentina (pictured above). Shuvuuia itself hailed from Mongolia.
6. Uniquely, Shuvuuia Had a Hinged Upper Jaw.
Here’s a trait scientists haven’t yet found in any other non-bird dinosaur. Shuvuuia’s snout could bend upward independently of its skull—an adaptation made possible by special hinges near its eye sockets.
7. It Had Some Cozy Proto-Feathers.
It turns out Shuvuuia was rather fluffy, with a coat made of small, feather-like structures that had hollow, tubular shafts made of keratin—the same material that’s found in your fingernails.
8. Alvarezsaurids Like Shuvuuia Were Once Considered True Birds ...
Today they’re classified as non-avian dinosaurs, but back in the '90s, many scientists viewed them as primitive birds whose ancestors had forgotten how to fly.
9. … And One Scientist Thought They Were Really “Ostrich Dinosaurs.”
In 1999, University of Chicago paleontologist Paul Sereno opined that alvarezsaurids were modified members of another group called ornithomimidae. Known informally as “ostrich dinos,” these speedy creatures had long legs, swan-like necks, and long, grasping forelimbs. (A herd of them charge through Jurassic Park.) But there isn’t much evidence to support this idea. Instead, experts now see the alvarezsauridae as their own, independent lineage.
10. Shuvuuia’s Name Comes From Shuvuu, Mongolian for Bird.
Six-year-old dino-maniacs might not know it, but by boning up on the prehistoric beasts, they’re dabbling in Latin and Greek, the classical languages commonly used for taxonomy. But today other tongues are used too. Dilong, for example, was a small T. rex forerunner whose name means "emperor dragon" in Chinese. Likewise, when Shuvuuia was named in 1998, its discoverers took their inspiration from the local language.