The elegant jaw, Compsognathus (1861)
Phylum : Chordata
Class : Reptilia
Order : Saurischia
Suborder : Theropoda
Family : Compsognathidae
Subfamily : Compsognathinae
Genus : Compsognathus
Species : C. longipes
- Late Jurassic (152,1 - 147,7 Ma)
- 1 m long and 2 kg (size)
- Western Europe (map)
Most of the dinosaurs identified in the first half of the 19th century were massive plant-eaters like Iguanodon, which is why the discovery of the tiny, meat-eating Compsognathus—in Germany in the 1850’s—caused such a stir. However, Compsognathus wasn’t the first theropod dinosaur ever to be named; that honor belongs to the still-controversial Megalosaurus.
The numerous, exquisitely preserved fossils of Solnhofen provide a detailed snapshot of a late Jurassic (150 million years ago) ecosystem. Depending on how you classify Archaeopteryx, Compsognathus is the only true dinosaur to be retrieved from these sediments, which were more extensively populated by pterosaurs and prehistoric fish.
The first identified fossil of Compsognathus belonged to an individual weighing only a few pounds. What most people don’t know is that a second Compsognathus specimen, discovered in 1972 in France, was substantially bigger (perhaps as much as 10 pounds). It’s now believed that this second fossil was an adult, while the Solnhofen specimen belonged to a smaller juvenile.
Despite that reference to “Compies” in Jurassic Park, there’s no compelling evidence that Compsognathus traveled the plains of western Europe in packs, much less that it hunted cooperatively to bring down larger dinosaurs. On the other hand, though, this kind of social behavior wouldn’t be an unusual adaptation for such a small, vulnerable creature!
Since Compsognathus was such a small dinsoaur, it’s a reasonable bet that it didn’t prey on comparably smal theropods. Rather, analysis of the fossilized stomach contents of some Compsognathus specimens shows that this dinosaur preyed on smaller, non-dinosaurian lizards, though it probably wasn’t above munching on the occasional fish or already-deceased pterosaur.