Greetings all. Every child with a rough grasp of what life was like in Late Jurassic North America probably knows the Morrison Formation’s main characters. If such a child were to be asked to name the meat-eaters from that formation, the name Ornitholestes would definitely pop up, likely somewhere around third or fourth place.
Ornitholestes was a 6-foot long coelurosaurid theropod dinosaur that lived in western North America during the late Jurassic Period, 155-145 MYA. It is commonly depicted scampering about in the forest, or along the edge of the forest, or sneakily hiding in the shadows out of sight of the larger predators. With the likes of Allosaurus and Torvosaurus stomping around, it’s easy to see why paleo-artists have relegated little Ornitholestes to a bit-part on the Jurassic stage.
But I like to think that Ornitholestes‘ part was much bigger in the never-ending drama of Mesozoic life. Let’s look at its body. I’ve already stated that it was 6 feet long and was therefore about 2 feet tall – large enough to bite you on the knee. It likely weighed a hundred pounds or a smidge less than that – certainly not more. Its skull is worth looking at. Contrary to what has been commonly portrayed, it DID NOT have a little Ceratosaurus-like crest on the end of its nose. That mistake was made when a dislocated bone was mis-identified as a nasal crest. The skull was thin and deep, like a battle axe, and based upon its structure and that of its neck, it likely had a very strong bite. The teeth are small, but they are rather thick in cross-section. A powerful bite and thick teeth? This makes Ornitholestes sound like a precursor to the tyrannosaurs, and no wonder, because the tyrannosaurs are, in fact, highly-evolved coelurosaurs – the same group that Ornitholestes belonged to. The eye sockets on this baby were huge, so it is likely that Ornitholestes was a nocturnal hunter. As for its body, it was a bit on the muscular stocky side, so it was physically strong. It was equipped with long arms ending in three hook-like claws on each hand, and it had a long tail. We can also be fairly sure that Ornitholestes had a coat of thin whispy fur-like feathers on its body since other coelurosaurids that were more primitive and more advanced that Ornitholestes had feathers.
So what can we determine? It was strong for its size, its jaws could crack through eggshells and small bones, it could run, and it could grapple. In short, Ornitholestes was the hyena of the Jurassic savannah.
Hyenas are nothing to laugh at (I’m sorry, that was bad). Hyenas have a reputation for being scavengers, likely because they are commonly seen picking at the leftovers of the lions’ dinner, and because their jaws are the strongest jaws pound-for-pound of any meat-eating animal on the African plains – good for cracking through thick bones of carcasses. But in reality, hyenas are effective hunters as well. They are pack hunters, like lions or wolves, and it’s not unusual to see a gaggle of them, panting and bare-teethed, running down a zebra or a wildebeest.
Was Ornitholestes the same way? Unfortunately, fossils rarely provide evidence for animal behavior. The fact that Ornitholestes fossils are so rare doesn’t help matters. But I dare say that these carnivorous critters were a serious threat to dinosaur mothers who had eggs to protect, they likely did significant damage to hatchlings, they preyed upon smaller animals like thick-boned mammals, and assuredly were seen scavenging carcasses left by other larger meat-eating dinosaurs.
A while back, I drew a picture of Ornitholestes and posted it to this blog. However, it was an “old school” picture portraying Ornitholestes covered in scales. I have recently made an updated version, and I’m posting that image below.
In addition to the feathers, I’ve also slightly altered the shape of the skull to be a little more accurate. I always try to improve my work, and I dare say that a few years from now after my skills have improved further, I’ll make a drawing of this guy that’s even better than the one you see here.
Keep your pencils sharp, people.