The Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals of Germany

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From Anurognathus to Stenopterygius, These Creatures Ruled Prehistoric Germany

Compsognathus, a dinosaur of Germany. Sergio Perez

Thanks to its well-preserved fossil beds, which have yielded a rich variety of theropods, pterosaurs, and feathered "dino-birds," Germany has contributed immeasurably to our knowledge of prehistoric life--and it was also the home of some of the world's most eminent paleontologists. On the following slides, you'll find an alphabetical list of the most notable dinosaurs and prehistoric animals ever to be discovered in Germany.

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Anurognathus, a pterosaur of Germany. Dmitry Bogdanov

Germany's Solnhofen Formation, located in the southern part of the country, has yielded some of the world's most impressive fossil specimens. Anurognathus isn't as well known as Archaeopteryx (see next slide), but this tiny, hummingbird-sized pterosaur has been exquisitely preserved, shedding valuable light on the evolutionary interrelationships of the late Jurassic period. Despite its name (which means "no-tailed jaw"), Anurognathus did possess a tail, but an extremely short one compared to other pterosaurs.  

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Archaeopteryx, a dinosaur of Germany. Alain Beneteau

Often (and incorrectly) touted as the first true bird, Archaeopteryx was much more complicated than that: a small, feathered "dino-bird" that may or may not have been capable of flight. The dozen or so Archaeopteryx specimens recovered from Germany's Solnhofen beds (during the mid-19th century) are some of the world's most beautiful and coveted fossils, to the extent that one or two have disappeared, under mysterious circumstances, into the hands of private collectors.  

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Compsognathus, a dinosaur of Germany. Wikimedia Commons

For well over a century, ever since its discovery in Solnhofen in the mid-19th century, Compsognathus was considered the world's smallest dinosaur; today, this five-pound theropod has been outclassed by even tinier species like Microraptor. To make up for its small size (and to evade the notice of the hungry pterosaurs of its German ecosystem, such as the much bigger Pterodactylus described in slide #9,) Compsognathus may have hunted at night, in packs, though the evidence for this is far from conclusive.

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Cyamodus, a prehistoric animal of Germany. Wikimedia Commons

Not every famous German prehistoric animal was discovered in Solnhofen. An example is the late Triassic Cyamodus, which was first identified as an ancestral turtle by the famous paleontologist Hermann von Meyer, until later experts concluded that it was actually a placodont (a family of turtle-like marine reptiles that went extinct by the beginning of the Jurassic period). Hundreds of millions of years ago, much of present-day Germany was covered by water, and Cyamodus made its living by sucking primitive shellfish off the ocean floor.

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Europasaurus, a dinosaur of Germany. Andrey Atuchin

During the late Jurassic period, about 150 million years ago, much of modern-day Germany consisted of small islands dotting shallow interior seas. Discovered in Lower Saxony in 2006, Europasaurus is an example of "insular dwarfism," that is, the tendency of creatures to evolve to smaller sizes in response to limited resources. Although Europasaurus was technically a sauropod, it was only about 10 feet long and couldn't have weighed much more than a ton, making it a true runt compared to contemporaries like the North American Brachiosaurus.

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Juravenator, a dinosaur of Germany. Wikimedia Commons

For such a small dinosaur, Juravenator has occasioned a ton of controversy since its "type fossil" was discovered near Eichstatt, in southern Germany. This five-pound theropod was clearly similar to Compsognathus (see slide #4), yet its bizarre combination of reptile-like scales and bird-like "proto-feathers" made it difficult to classify. Today, some paleontologists believe Juravenator was a coelurosaur, and thus closely related to the North American Coelurus, while others insist its closest kin was the "maniraptoran" theropod Ornitholestes.

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Liliensternus, a dinosaur of Germany. Nobu Tamura

At a mere 15 feet long and 300 pounds, you might think Liliensternus was nothing to reckon with compared to an adult Allosaurus or T. Rex. The fact is, though, that this theropod was one of the largest predators of its time and place (late Triassic Germany), when the meat-eating dinosaurs of the later Mesozoic Era had yet to evolve to massive sizes. (If you're wondering about its less-than-macho name, Liliensternus was named after the German noble and amateur paleontologist Hugo Ruhle von Lilienstern.)

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Pterodactylus, a pterosaur of Germany. Alain Beneteau

Okay, time to head back to the Solnhofen fossil beds: Pterodactylus ("wing finger") was the first pterosaur ever to be identified, after a Solnhofen specimen made its way into the hands of an Italian naturalist in 1784. However, it took decades for scientists to establish conclusively what they were dealing with--a shore-dwelling flying reptile with a penchant for fish--and even today, many people continue to confuse Pterodactylus with Pteranodon (sometimes alluding to both genera with the meaningless name "pterodactyl.")

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Rhamphorhynchus, a pterosaur of Germany. Wikimedia Commons

Another Solnhofen pterosaur, Rhamphorhynchus was in many ways Pterodactylus' opposite--to the extent that paleontologists today refer to "rhamphorhynchoid" and "pterodactyloid" pterosaurs. Rhamphorhynchus was distinguished by its relatively small size (a wingspan of only three feet) and its unusually long tail, characteristics it shared with other late Jurassic genera like Dorygnathus and Dimorphodon. However, it was the pterodactyloids that wound up inheriting the earth, evolving into gigantic genera of the late Cretaceous period like Quetzalcoatlus.  

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Stenopterygius, a prehistoric marine reptile of Germany. Nobu Tamura

As noted previously, much of modern-day Germany was deep underwater during the late Jurassic period--which explains the provenance of Stenopterygius, a type of marine reptile known as an ichthyosaur (and thus a close relative of Ichthyosaurus). What's amazing about Stenopterygius is that one famous fossil specimen captures a mother dying in the act of giving birth--proof that at least some ichthyosaurs spawned live young, rather than arduously crawling onto dry land and laying their eggs.