Facts About Compsognathus

A pack of compsognathus rendered digitally

Mark Stevenson / Stocktrek Images / Getty Images

Compsognathus was once considered the world's smallest dinosaur. Although others have been found which were smaller, the "compy" still holds an important place as one of the earliest theropods in the fossil record. How much do you know about compsognathus? Discover more fascinating facts about this chicken-sized Jurassic creature.

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Compsognathus Was Once the Smallest Identified Dinosaur

Digital compies running

Mark Stevenson / Stocktrek Images / Getty Images

Although it's often inaccurately presented as the current record-holder, it has been quite a few years since the 2 foot long, 5 pound compsognathus has been considered the world's smallest dinosaur. That honor now belongs to the accurately named microraptor, a tiny, feathered, four-winged dino-bird that only weighed 3 or 4 pounds soaking wet, and that represented a side branch (and dead end) in dinosaur evolution. 

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As Tiny as It Was, Compsognathus Was the Biggest Dinosaur of Its Habitat

Compsognathus chased by archaeopteryx

Durbed / DeviantArt / CC BY-SA 3.0

The numerous, exquisitely preserved fossils of Germany's Solnhofen beds provide a detailed snapshot of a late Jurassic ecosystem. Depending on how you choose to classify archaeopteryx, compsognathus is the only true dinosaur to be retrieved from these sediments, which were more extensively populated by pterosaurs and prehistoric fish. By both definition and default, compsognathus was the largest dinosaur of its habitat!

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One Compsognathus Specimen Has a Tiny Lizard in Its Stomach

A cast of a compsognathus fossil

Ballista / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Since compsognathus was such a small dinosaur, it's a reasonable bet that it didn't prey on comparably small theropods. Rather, analysis of the fossilized stomach contents of some compsognathus specimens reveals that this dinosaur targeted smaller, non-dinosaur lizards (one specimen has yielded the remains of the tiny bavarisaurus), though it probably wasn't above munching on the occasional fish or already-deceased pterosaur hatchling.

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We Have No Proof Compsognathus Had Feathers

A wild eyed, furry compsognathus


One of the odd things about compsognathus—especially in light of its close affiliation with archaeopteryx—is that its fossils bear absolutely no imprint of primitive feathers. Unless this represents some artifact of the fossilization process, the only conclusion is that compsognathus was covered with classically reptilian skin, which makes it the exception rather than the rule among the small, feathered theropods of its late Jurassic ecosystem.

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Compsognathus Snatched Prey With Its Three-Fingered Hands

MatthiasKabel / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Like most of the lighter-sized dinosaurs of the Triassic and Jurassic periods, compsognathus relied on its speed and agility to run down prey—which it then snatched up with its relatively dexterous, three-fingered hands (which still, however, lacked opposable thumbs). Since this dinosaur needed to maintain its balance during high-speed pursuits, it also possessed a long tail, which acted as a counterweight to the front portion of its body.

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The Name Compsognathus Means Pretty Jaw

A sketch of the full compsognathus skeleton by Marsh, 1896​

CopyrightExpired.com / Public Domain

No one knows from exactly which part of the Solnhofen beds compsognathus was recovered, but soon after the type fossil found its way into the hands of a private collector, it received its name (Greek for "pretty jaw"). However, compsognathus wasn't fully confirmed as a dinosaur until the famous American paleontologist Othniel C. Marsh discussed it in an 1896 paper, and it remained relatively obscure until a later researcher, John Ostrom, redescribed it in 1978.

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Compsognathus Was Closely Related to Juravenator and Scipionyx

The terrifying remains of a juvenile scipionyx, the slightly larger cousin of compsognathus

Giovanni Dall'Orto / Wikimedia Commons

Despite its early discovery, paleontologists have had a hard time fitting compsognathus into the mainstream of theropod evolution. Recently, the consensus has been that this dinosaur was closely related to two other European dinosaurs, the comparably sized, contemporaneous juravenator and the later, slightly larger scipionyx. As is the case with compsognathus, there's no clear evidence that either of these meat-eaters possessed feathers.

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Compsognathus Wasn't Far Removed From the Very First Dinosaurs

The skeleton of an eoraptor at the Mori Arts center in Japan

Kentaro Ohno / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

About 80 million years separated compsognathus from the first true dinosaurs—small meat-eaters like herrerasaurus and eoraptor that evolved from the two-legged archosaurs of middle Triassic South America. The gulf in time looms larger than the gulf in anatomy, though: in most respects, including its small size and long, slender legs, compsognathus was very similar in appearance and behavior to these "basal" dinosaurs. 

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Compsognathus May (or May Not) Have Congregated in Packs

An artist rendering of a thoughtful compsognathus

Nobumichi Tamura / Stocktrek Images / Getty Images

Despite that offhand reference to "compies" in the original "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—or (for that matter) any small theropod of the Mesozoic Era.

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To Date, There Is Only One Identified Compsognathus Species

A green compsognathus checks out a dragonfly in a ray of sunlight


As famous as it is, compsognathus was diagnosed on the basis of limited fossil evidence—just a couple of well-articulated specimens. As a result, there is only one extant Compsognathus species—Compsognathus longipes—though there used to be a second (Compsognathus corallestris) that has since been discarded. In this way, compsognathus is very different from other early-to-be-discovered dinosaurs like megalosaurus, to which dozens of dubious species were once assigned.

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Strauss, Bob. "Facts About Compsognathus." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/things-to-know-compsognathus-1093780. Strauss, Bob. (2023, April 5). Facts About Compsognathus. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/things-to-know-compsognathus-1093780 Strauss, Bob. "Facts About Compsognathus." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/things-to-know-compsognathus-1093780 (accessed June 10, 2023).