Shuvuuia (Wikimedia Commons).


Shuvuuia (Mongolian for "bird"); pronounced shoo-VOO-yah


Plains of Asia

Historical Period:

Late Cretaceous (85-75 million years ago)

Size and Weight:

About two feet long and five pounds


Insects and small animals

Distinguishing Characteristics:

Small, birdlike head; dinosaur-like forelimbs; primitive feathers

About Shuvuuia

Shuvuuia is one of those ancient dino-birds that gives paleontologists fits,comprised as it is of an equal number of bird-like and dinosaur-like characteristics. The beaked snout of this late Cretaceous creature, for example, was distinctly birdlike, as were its long legs and three-toed feet, but its too-short arms call to mind (in much smaller proportions, of course) the stunted limbs of bipedal theropods like Tyrannosaurus Rex. Lately, the consensus is that the almost certainly feathered Shuvuuia was closer to a dinosaur than it was to a prehistoric bird, but as with the much earlier Archaeopteryx, this issue may never be settled conclusively. (By the way, Shuvuuia also stands out for being one of the prehistoric animals whose name is not derived from Greek roots--"shuvuu" is the word for bird in Mongolia, where Shuvuuia's remains were discovered in 1987.)

Technically, Shuvuuia is classified as an "alvarezsaur," meaning it was closely related to the roughly contemporary Alvarezsaurus of South America (as were many of the dino-birds that lived in this region of central Asia, including another close Shuvuuia relative, Kol). Perhaps more tellingly, the tiny Shuvuuia inhabited a rich, complex, and extremely dangerous ecosystem already well-stocked with predatory raptors like Velociraptor and Tsaagan and feathered "troodontids" like Gobivenator and Byronosaurus. Given its small size, Shuvuuia would have been fairly low down on the food chain, and probably spent most of its day evading these larger dinosaurs--perhaps by squeezing itself into the same crooks of trees from whence it pried out termites and grubs for its dinner.