Compsognathus Habitat: A Jurassic Archipelago
Compsognathus, affectionately known as ‘Compy’ or ‘Compies’, was a carnivorous theropod that lived 150 million years ago in the Jurassic period and one of the smallest dinosaurs on record. The species may have carried over into the early Cretaceous as well. Two specimens recovered over 100 years apart from each other are the only remnants of this diminutive dinosaur. Compsognathus reached the size of a small chicken at maturity and is known for being one of the smallest theropods to be discovered. Despite this, there is reason to believe that Compsognathus was the largest carnivore in its area at the time.
|Prehistoric Era||Late Jurassic|
|Weight||2-10 pounds (1.0-4.0 kilograms)|
|Length||2-4 feet (0.6-1.2 meters)|
|Height||Around 1 foot (0.3 meters)|
|Maximum Speed||Approximately 40 mph|
When Joseph Oberndorfer received the first Compsognathus fossil in 1859, he held in his hands the smallest dinosaur skeleton ever to be discovered. The species was later named Compsognathus, Greek for “elegant jaw”, by Johann A. Wagner. With such a small jaw compared to other theropods, it is easy to see how Compsognathus received its name. Its small jaws were capable of catching and eating small lizards and insects, but larger theropods could would have swallow Compsognathus whole. In the late 20th century, paleontologists discovered dinosaurs that were even smaller than Compsognathus, thus moving it down the list of smallest discovered dinosaurs.
What Did Compsognathus Look Like?
Compsognathus was a slender, chicken-sized carnivore. The longest of the two discovered species was 49 inches long and more than half of the length was accounted for in the tail. Every feature of the Compsognathus was thin, from its tail to its head. The largest specimens probably reached about 10 pounds. Compsognathus moved around on its long hind legs. Its hind limbs were much longer than the fore limbs, but contrary to initial speculation each limb had three digits. It was thought that the forelimbs only had two clawed fingers because the first discovery only had two digits, but the second fossil recovered in France dispelled this belief. The front claw had three clawed fingers that would have been used to snatch agile prey.
Compsognathus had a narrow, small head at the end of its long and slender neck. In it, numerous small, sharp teeth were used to secure prey until it was swallowed whole. Compsognathus also had unproportionately large eyes. These might have given Compsognathus the vision necessary to locate and capture its fast-moving prey.
What did Compsognathus eat?
Paleontologists were lucky enough to discover, in both fossils, the remains of small lizards that Compsognathus consumed. At first it was thought that these small lizards might have been fossilized fetuses, but they were later identified as a small species of lizard. One fossil remain that was inside the stomach of a Compsognathus was identified as a species of Bavarisaurus. The small lizard was swallowed whole and it is believed that Compognathus swallowed all of its victims whole since its main diet is thought to have been small vertebrates and insects.
How did Compsognathus Move?
Every indication insists that Compsognathus was an agile, bipedal dinosaur. Its front limbs were nowhere near long enough to touch the ground and the hind limbs were built to support and transport its small frame. Compsognathus had to be fast to catch its prey. The extremely long tail, which was longer than the body, neck, and head combined, enhanced balance while it made turns at top speeds. Experts estimate that Compsognathus could run as fast as 25 miles per hour. This would have given these carnivores the ability to catch flying insects and scurrying lizards as well as any other living creature small enough to be swallowed whole.
Despite its small stature, Compsognathus might have been the top land predator during its time in Europe. Paleontologists haven’t yet discovered any other land-dwelling dinosaurs in Compsognathus’s habitat during the late Jurassic when it thrived. Its habitat was a tropical archipelago that bordered the prehistoric Tethys Sea, which may have played a role as a barrier to larger dinosaurs.
Where did Compsognathus live?
The territory that Compsognathus called home was a prehistoric archipelago that deposited its flora and fauna in what is now modern-day Europe. During the Kimmeridgian age of the late Jurassic, the archipelago that Compsognathus inhabited was tropical and the lagoons there would have supplied the species with plenty of food in the form of lizards and insects. Since large predators haven’t been discovered in Compsognathus’s territory during its tenure there, it is reasonable to believe that the species stayed near the archipelago for protection. The two specimens that have been collected were accompanied in fossilization by fish, crustaceans, and marine mollusks. Some believe that Compsognathus’s only threat might have resided in the water.
The Discovery of Compsognathus
All that is known of Compsognathus comes from two well-preserved fossils found in Germany and France respectively. The first fossil was purchased in 1859 by a fossil collector by the name of Joseph Oberndorfer and was later named by Johann A. Wagner. This specimen is estimated to have come from the Painten Formation in the Kapfelburg Locality of Germany. It can now be seen at the Bavarian Institute for Paleontology and Historical Geography in Munich, Germany. The institute purchased the fossil from Joseph Oberndorfer in 1865.
The second known Compsognathus fossil was discovered by a quarry owner in 1971. Louis Ghirardi located the fossil in his quarry located in Nice, France. With his discovery, scientists realized that the specimen purchased by Joseph Oberndorfer was a juvenile. Size and weight estimates were rewritten and paleontologists moved a step closer to figuring out the biology activity of Compsognathus. The Muséum national d’histoire naturelle (the National Museum of Natural History) procured ownership of this fossil in 1983. Almost 30 years later, these two fossils are still the only representatives of their species. Their species, Compsognathus longipes, also happens to be the only one in the Compsognathidae genus.
The Importance of Compsognathus
Compsognathus’s main contribution to science came in the field of bird evolution. Although it did not have any feathers, Compsognathus was instrumental in Thomas Huxley’s theory of bird evolution. In 1868, Huxley was compelled to compare Compsognathus to Archaeopteryx because of their many similarities. Archaeopteryx, which is famous for being one of the first feathered dinosaurs or protobird, had also been found in the same limestone formations that yielded Compsognathus. Huxley found that, other than the wings, Archaeopteryx was almost identical to Compsognathus. He used these findings to create his theory of bird evolution, stating that today’s birds evolved from small, carnivorous theropod. In 1896, Othniel Marsh recognized Compsognathus as a true species of Dinosauria, thus strengthening the relationship between small theropods and birds. Huxley’s theory comparing Compsognathus to Archaeopteryx has persisted for more than 140 years and is still widely accepted today.