When most people think of a dinosaur they imagine something huge and fierce like Tyrannosaurus, with its teeth bared, ready to kill. But some members of the compsognathid family were no bigger than chickens. The compsognathids were nimble little predators that hunted small animals. They were related to the ancestors of birds and probably had simple, fuzzy feathers to keep their small bodies warm.
FAMILY FACT FILE
■ Small, lightweight bodies with hollow bones
■ Skin covered with scales or furry feathers
■ Long tails used for balance
Compsognathids first appeared in the Late Jurassic, 151 million years ago. They died out in the Early Cretaceous, 108 million years ago.
■ When: 150 million years ago (Late Jurassic)
■ Fossil location: Germany, France
■ Habitat: Scrubland and marshes
■ Length: 3 ft (1 m)
■ Diet: Lizards, small mammals, baby dinosaurs
With its large eyes, clawed hands, and sharp, curved teeth, Compsognathus was a typical carnivorous dinosaur, but it was only the size of a chicken. Like a bird, it had hollow bones that kept its body light. Running swiftly on the tips of its toes, this lightweight predator could outpace fast-moving prey such as lizards, before pouncing on its victim. Its long tail was more than half of its total body length and was used for balance, helping it make sharp turns as it dashed about. Scientists think fuzzy feathers covered most of its body, especially its back.
HUNTER OR SCAVENGER?
Like any carnivore, Compsognathus sometimes came across dead animals and would have scavenged for scraps of meat. But its agile build and sharp little teeth show it was more of a hunter than a scavenger, built to capture nervous little animals before they scampered under rocks or disappeared into the undergrowth.
■ When: 130–125 million years ago (Early Cretaceous )
■ Fossil location: China
■ Habitat: Woodlands
■ Length: 3 ft (1 m)
■ Diet: Small animals
In 1996 the first feathered dinosaur, Sinosauropteryx, was discovered in the Liaoning Quarry, China. The fossil bore clear marks of simple, fluffy feathers covering the back and sides of the body. Such feathers probably served to keep the animal warm by trapping a layer of air next to the skin. Sinosauropteryx also had the longest tail, relative to its body size, of any flesh-eating dinosaur.