Othnielia

Othnielia rex was a small ornithopod dinosaur found in the Morrison Formation, a famous geological formation spanning a large chunk of the western United States which is dated to the late Jurassic Period, 155-145 million years ago. It is here that famous dinosaurs like Allosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Diplodocus once lived. Othnielia is named after the famous 19th Century paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh, who named many of those iconic dinosaur species during the “Bone Wars” of the 19th Century.

Othnielia is known from only fragmentary remains, but based upon the size and shape of the bones, it likely measured 5 feet long and weighed less than 150 pounds. It is believed that Othnielia was a member of a group of somewhat primitive ornithopods called the “hypsilophodonts”. Unlike other ornithopod plant-eaters which had a toothless beak, the hypsilophodonts still had small peg-like teeth in the front of their mouths, which was a relic from an earlier lineage. The hypsilophodonts also had small leaf-shaped teeth lining the sides of both the upper and lower jaws. Although these were not technically molars, since they were not used for grinding, they did help to chop up leaves into tiny pieces, which made digestion faster.

Because of their teeth, some paleontologists suspect that the hypsilophodonts were omnivores, and were not strictly herbivorous. If this is true, then Othnielia and its kind would have eaten a variety of foods, such as plants, insects, eggs, and possibly small animals like frogs, lizards, and primitive mammals. This diverse diet would help it survive in the harsh environment of the Morrison Formation by taking advantage of as many food sources as possible.

Nothing is known about the social habits of Othnielia and its kind, but many suspect that it was a herding animal and might have lived in social groups. One might be able to imagine these animals living on the Jurassic savanna like modern-day gazelles or possibly even like African meerkats. I personally rather like the idea of Othnielia living as a prehistoric meerkat analog, living in colonies with a tight social structure, but all of that is imaginative conjecture.

The drawing below depicts an Othnielia rex. Due to the dry nature of the Morrison Formation, I gave this animal a desert-themed color pattern along with a black eye stripe to cut out the glare from the sun, gradually spreading into spots and blotches which covered the body. This drawing was made with No. 2 pencil, Crayola and Prismacolor colored pencils, and a substantial amount of touch-up work on the computer. The blacks especially needed to be re-done because my scanner dulled their appearance.

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Categories: Paleontology, Uncategorized

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4 replies

  1. You are aware that Othnielia is now known as Nanosaurus, right?

  2. Ooh, I love the spotted markings, and I really like the idea of a meerkat analog. They don’t even need to dig their own burrows to fit it, though don’t we have a hypsolophodont burrow somewhere? I didn’t know about the toothed beak! For some reason I didn’t come across anything about it when I was researching for Nina, but then again, information is pretty convoluted with so many nomen dubiums surrounding the animal, and I probably just missed it. I’ll need to update my illustration!

    Thank you for sharing this! 🙂

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