Cryolophosaurus, the "Cold Crested Lizard"

Cryolophosaurus rendering illustration

SCIEPRO/Getty Images

Cryolophosaurus, the "cold-crest lizard," is notable for being the first meat-eating dinosaur ever to be discovered on the continent of Antarctica. On the following slides, you'll discover ten fascinating facts about this early Jurassic theropod.

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Cryolophosaurus Was the Second Dinosaur to Be Discovered in Antarctica

Lemaire Channel in Antarctica
Linda Garrison

As you can imagine, the continent of Antarctica isn't exactly a hotbed of fossil discovery--not because it was bereft of dinosaurs during the Mesozoic Era, but because climatic conditions make long-scale expeditions nearly impossible. When its partial skeleton was unearthed in 1990, Cryolophosaurus became only the second dinosaur ever to be discovered on the vast Southern continent, after the plant-eating Antarctopelta (which lived over a hundred million years later).

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Cryolophosaurus Is Informally Known as "Elvisaurus"

Cryolophosaurus dinosaur, side view.

Corey Ford/Stocktrek Images/Getty Images

The most distinctive feature of Cryolophosaurus was the single crest atop its head, which didn't run front-to-back (as on Dilophosaurus and other crested dinosaurs) but side-to-side, like a 1950's pompadour. That's why this dinosaur is affectionately known to paleontologists as "Elvisaurus," after singer Elvis Presley. (The purpose of this crest remains a mystery, but as with the human Elvis, it was probably a sexually selected characteristic meant to attract the female of the species.)

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Cryolophosaurus Was the Largest Meat-Eating Dinosaur of Its Time

Cryolophosaurus ellioti dinosaurs over the dead body of an prosauropod dinosaur


Sergey Krasovskiy/Stocktrek Images/Getty Images

As theropods (meat-eating dinosaurs) go, Cryolophosaurus was far from the biggest of all time, measuring only about 20 feet from head to tail and weighing about 1,000 pounds. But while this dinosaur didn't approach the heft of the much later carnivores like Tyrannosaurus Rex or Spinosaurus, it was almost certainly the apex predator of the early Jurassic period, when theropods (and their plant-eating prey) had yet to grow to the enormous sizes of the later Mesozoic Era.

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Cryolophosaurus May (Or May Not) Have Been Related to Dilophosaurus

Jurassic Twin Crested Dilophosaurus Fossil

Kevin Schafer/Getty Images

The exact evolutionary relationships of Cryolophosaurus continue to be a matter of dispute. This dinosaur was once thought to be closely related to other early theropods, such as the evocatively named Sinraptor; at least one notable paleontologist (Paul Sereno) has assigned it as a distant precursor of Allosaurus; other experts trace its kinship to the similarly crested (and much-misunderstood) Dilophosaurus; and the latest study maintains that it was a close cousin of Sinosaurus.

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It Was Once Thought That the Sole Specimen of Cryolophosaurus Choked to Death

Cryolophosaurus fossil

Jonathan Chen/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

The paleontologist who discovered Cryolophosaurus made a spectacular blunder, claiming that his specimen had choked to death on the ribs of a prosauropod (the slender, two-legged precursors of the giant sauropods of the later Mesozoic Era). However, further study revealed that these ribs actually belonged to Cryolophosaurus itself, and were displaced after its death toward the vicinity of its skull. (It's still likely, though, that Cryolophosaurus preyed on prosauropods; see slide #10.)

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Cryolophosaurus Lived During the Early Jurassic Period

Close-up of the Cryolophosaurus head

Jonathan Chen/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

As noted in slide #4, Cryolophosaurus lived about 190 million years ago, during the early Jurassic period — only about 40 million years after the evolution of the very first dinosaurs in what is now modern-day South America. At the time, the supercontinent of Gondwana — comprising South America, Africa, Australia, and Antarctica — had only recently split off from Pangea, a dramatic geologic event reflected by the striking similarities among the dinosaurs of the southern hemisphere.

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Cryolophosaurus Lived in a Surprisingly Temperate Climate

Primary rain forest in Borneo

Nora Carol Photography/Getty Images

Today, Antarctica is a vast, frigid, nearly inaccessible continent whose human population can be counted in the thousands. But this wasn't the case 200 million years ago, when the part of Gondwana corresponding to Antarctica was much closer to the equator, and the world's overall climate was much more hot and humid. Antarctica, even back then, was cooler than the rest of the globe, but it was still temperate enough to support a lush ecology (much of the fossil evidence of which we have yet to unearth).

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Cryolophosaurus Had a Small Brain for Its Size

Cryolophosaurus illustration


SCIEPRO/Getty Images

It was only during the late Cretaceous period that some meat-eating dinosaurs (like Tyrannosaurus Rex and Troodon) took eensy-weensy evolutionary steps toward a higher-than-average level of intelligence. Like most of the plus-sized theropods of the Jurassic and late Triassic periods — not to mention the even dumber plant eaters — Cryolophosaurus was endowed with a fairly small brain for its size, as measured by high-tech scans of this dinosaur's skull.

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Cryolophosaurus May Have Preyed on Glacialisaurus


Nobu Tamura/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Because of the paucity of fossil remains, there's still a lot we don't know about the everyday life of Cryolophosaurus. We do know, however, that this dinosaur shared its territory with Glacialisaurus, the "frozen lizard," a comparably sized prosauropod. However, since a full-grown Cryolophosaurus would have had difficulty taking down a full-grown Glacialisaurus, this predator likely targeted juveniles or sick or aged individuals (or perhaps scavenged their corpses after they died of natural causes).

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Cryolophosaurus Has Been Reconstructed From a Single Fossil Specimen


Jonathan Chen/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0

Some theropods, like Allosaurus, are known from multiple, nearly intact fossil specimens, allowing paleontologists to glean a huge amount of information about their anatomy and behavior. Cryolophosaurus lies on the other end of the fossil spectrum: to date, the only specimen of this dinosaur is the single, incomplete one discovered in 1990, and there is only one named species (C. elliotti). Hopefully, this situation will improve with future fossil expeditions to he Antarctic continent!

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Strauss, Bob. "Cryolophosaurus, the "Cold Crested Lizard"." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Strauss, Bob. (2020, August 28). Cryolophosaurus, the "Cold Crested Lizard". Retrieved from Strauss, Bob. "Cryolophosaurus, the "Cold Crested Lizard"." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).