An Ultimate Guide to Compsognathus: The Pretty Jaw

Leave a comment / / Updated on: 4th January 2024

Name MeaningPretty JawHeight21-29 centimeters (8.2-11.4 inches)
PronunciationKomp-sog-nuh-thusLength0.89-1.25 meters (2.9-4.1 feet)
EraMesozoic, Late JurassicWeight0.58-2.5 kilograms (1.27-5.5 pounds)
ClassificationDinosauria,‭ Saurischia & TheropodaLocationGermany, France; Europe

Compsognathus Pictures

Compsognathus dinosaur walking - 3D render stock photo
Compsognathus | Elenarts108 via iStock

The Compsognathus

Gage Beasley Prehistoric's Compsognathus Concept
Gage Beasley Prehistoric’s Compsognathus Concept

What paleontologists now know about the Compsognathus genus and its species, Compsognathus longipes, has been derived from two discovered specimens – one in Germany and the other in France.

This discovery is a significant event in the paleontological field, as it sheds some light on the evolution and history of theropods and birds.

Besides, it is considered one of the few dinosaurs whose fossils revealed an almost complete skeleton.

It was confirmed that this small theropod, which was the size of a turkey, lived in Europe around 150 million years ago during the Late Jurassic.

The Compsognathus was a bipedal carnivore with a long tail and an elongated head.

It fed on small animals only and is thought to have been the top land predator in its habitat.

Keep reading to discover more about this curious prehistoric creature, and you’ll discover some incredible facts!

Gage Beasley's Prehistoric Shirt Collection
Gage Beasley’s Prehistoric Shirt Collection
Gage Beasley's Prehistoric Plush Collection
Gage Beasley’s Prehistoric Plush Collection

Physical Characteristics

Computer generated 3D illustration with the small theropod dinosaur Compsognathus
Computer-generated 3D illustration of Compsognathus | MR1805 via iStock

The Compsognathus is undoubtedly one of the world’s smallest dinosaurs, and paleontologists estimate its size based on the two specimens discovered in France and Germany.

The dinosaur whose fossils were found in France was larger, measuring around 1.25 meters (4.1 feet) in total length.

It had a hip height of 29 centimeters (11.4 inches), a skull length of 10.5 centimeters (4.1 inches), and a femur length of 11 centimeters (4.3 inches).

In comparison, the specimen whose fossils were recovered in Germany and which is now the type specimen had a total length of only 0.89 meters (2.9 feet), a hip height of 21 centimeters (8.2 inches), a skull length of 7.6 centimeters (2.3 inches), and a femur length of 6.7 centimeters (2.6 inches).

Gage Beasley Prehistoric's Compsognathus Size Comparison
Gage Beasley Prehistoric’s Compsognathus Size Comparison

There’s an important difference between these two specimens that’s worth noting.

The German specimen’s femur was shorter than the skull; can you imagine that?!

The French one, however, had a longer femur, even longer than the skull.

As for the weight, the specimen discovered in France weighed 2.5 kilograms (5.5 pounds), whereas the German one was much, much lighter, not even reaching one kilogram!

It weighed only 0.58 kilograms (1.27 pounds)!

Based on these differences, many paleontologists argued that these two belonged to different species.

Ultimately, they concluded that the French skeleton was just an adult form of the same species.

Compsognathus marble fossilized imprint
Compsognathus marble fossilized imprint | Wicki58 via iStock

Besides size-related details, paleontologists discovered the following about the appearance of the Compsognathus:

  • It had a slender build.
  • The teeth were small and widely spaced. They had a conical form and featured reduced serrations. The front teeth were more conical and featured no serrations.
  • The eyes were relatively large in proportion to the rest of the skull.
  • Its neck was long and slender.
  • Its head was long and narrow, which is why it had such an impressive skull length.
  • The hind limbs were longer than the forelimbs. 
  • The forelimbs bore two functional digits and a third digit that was probably non-functional.
  • The tail was extremely long and slender.

Because some Compsognathus relatives (Sinocalliopteryx and Sinosauropteryx) are known to have had feathers, the Compsognathus is now also depicted as feathered, although no fossil evidence supports this.

However, scientists still believe that we cannot rule out the possibility that they had feathers.

How long and abundant the feathers have remained unanswered.

Habitat and Distribution

Two compsognathus dinosaurs walking and thirsty in the desert looking for water by day
Two compsognathus dinosaurs walking and thirsty in the desert looking for water by day | Elenarts108 via iStock

Fossils belonging to the Compsognathus were found in two localities:

  • An unknown locality in Germany
  • Canjuers Plateau, located close to Nice, France

Establishing the precise distribution and habitat of this species is challenging because it is unknown where exactly the German specimen was found.

Joseph Oberndorfer, who discovered the skeleton, didn’t reveal the year and the locality of the discovery.

However, paleontologists believe the fossils were probably recovered from either the Riedenburg-Kehlheim region or the Jachenhausen, and both are part of the Painten Formation.

Compsognathus dinosaur trying to eat frogs in the desert with calamite trees
Compsognathus dinosaur trying to eat frogs in the desert with calamite trees | Elenarts108 via iStock

During the Jurassic, this formation was part of the Solnhofen archipelago.

The French specimen was recovered from the Portlandian lithographic limestone found near Nice, in the Canjeurs plateau.

Europe was a tropical archipelago during the Late Jurassic.

It is thought that the Compsognathus lived in the islands surrounding the lagoons, which were situated between the beaches and the coral reefs of the region.

The islands are thought to have had a semi-arid climate, and the ecosystem likely had a few plants, but some cycads and conifers were present.

Behavior and Diet

3D render of a compsognathus dinosaur on the run. This dinosaur was the size of a turkey, and lived during the late Jurassic period.
3D render of a compsognathus dinosaur on the run | LindaMarieB via iStock

The Compsognathus was a bipedal predator.

It was likely a fast runner, as some scientists estimate a top speed of 64.08 kilometers (39.8 miles) per hour, which is as fast as a car!

Other specialists debated these results, although no other estimations were proposed.

Although not all scientists consider this calculation valid, it is known that the species was an agile runner.

Moreover, it probably had a sharp vision that helped it spot even the tiniest lizards.

Some studies suggested that the Compsognathus was an amphibian creature that could easily swim and feed on aquatic prey.

This is backed up by the assumption that it had webbed, flipper-like hands.

Nevertheless, there’s not enough paleontological evidence to support this theory.

Furthermore, the location where fossils have been found indicates that they had been deposited at the bottom of the sea, thus showing that the specimen likely died by drowning.

Compsognathus dinosaur hunting a gecko in a lagoon with calamite trees
Compsognathus dinosaur hunting a gecko in a lagoon with calamite trees | Elenarts108 via iStock

So even if it were a swimmer, it was probably not an excellent one.

It is worth noting that scientists aren’t completely sure how this prehistoric creature died, so all the above remain only theories.

The Compsognathus was a carnivore that likely fed on small prey.

The German specimen had a small skeleton in its belly, initially thought to have been an embryo.

Later, scientists concluded it was, in fact, a Bavarisaurus lizard, indicating that the Compsognathus preferred small prey, which it swallowed whole.

Moreover, since it had conical teeth, the Compsognathus likely wasn’t physically able to hunt and kill larger prey, as the teeth wouldn’t cause any real damage to the prey.

Besides this, some scientists argue that the European archipelago hosted only small vertebrates, and the Compsognathus could’ve been the islands’ top land predator.

Life Cycle

compsognathus dinosaur in white background - 3d render
Compsognathus dinosaur in white background | mariephoto28 via iStock

Like all dinosaur species, the Compsognathus reproduced by laying eggs.

Since females had two oviducts, they laid two eggs at a time, unlike modern birds, which lay only one egg at a time.

Several circular irregularities were found near the German skeleton.

They were subsequently assessed as being immature dinosaur eggs and measured around 10 mm (0.39 in) in diameter.

At first, it was thought they belonged to the Compsognathus, but further studies disapproved of this theory because they weren’t inside the animal.

Cartoon Compsognathus dinosaur character
Cartoon Compsognathus dinosaur character | seamartini via iStock

Some paleontologists suggest they were merely gas bubbles formed in the sediment.

Apart from this, very little is known about the life cycle of these creatures.

Baby dinosaurs might’ve been precocial, meaning they were born somewhat independent and didn’t require adult help to feed and move around.

However, although many baby dinosaurs were born this way, we can’t be sure this is also valid for Compsognathus.

Evolution and History

Compsognathus dinosaur standing on a rock on a cloudy day
Compsognathus dinosaur standing on a rock on a cloudy day | Elenarts108 via iStock

The first Compsognathus fossils were discovered sometime in the 1800s, with the precise year remaining unknown.

At first, the specimen was thought to have been a lizard.

However, scientists later concluded that the creature had dinosaurian characteristics.

In 1870, it was classified as Compsognathus in a Symphypoda clade alongside the Hadrosaurus (called Ornithotarsus back then).

Then, the Compsognathus was moved to the Gonipoda, equivalent to Theropoda.

Other scientists disapproved of this classification and proposed other classifications.

Nevertheless, all were eventually canceled, and the species was, in the end, classified into the Compsognathinae subfamily, which consists only of the Compsognathus genus and its species.

In turn, this subfamily is classified under the Compsognathidae family, which was once considered to have consisted only of the Compsognathus.

Over the years, additional specimens were found and included in this family alongside the genus we’re discussing today.

Compsognathus dinosaurs run for their lives as a Cryolophosaurus predator tries to catch them during the Jurassic Age
Compsognathus dinosaurs run for their lives as a Cryolophosaurus predator tries to catch them during the Jurassic Age | CoreyFord via iStock

The discovery of these specimens marked an important evolutionary event, as the Compsognathus was long believed to have been the world’s smallest known theropod.

It was often compared to the Archaeopteryx, another small theropod historically accepted as the oldest known bird.

The Compsognathus’ association with this other theropod makes it of great interest to scientists.

Thomas Huxley, an English biologist and anthropologist that advocated for Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, was particularly concerned with the connection the Compsognathus had with birds, even naming it a “bird-like reptile.”

Over time, however, other dinosaur genera were discovered, and they are now considered potential avialans.

Some of them are Xiaotingia, Anchiornis, and Aurornis.

Approximately a century later, another almost complete Compsognathus skeleton was found in France, and since it was much larger than the first specimen, it carried essential additional information about these theropods.

Interactions with Other Species

Compsognathus dinosaur walking in the desert by day
Compsognathus dinosaur walking in the desert by day | Elenarts108 via iStock

Three other dinosaur fossils were discovered in the Painten Formation, where the Compsognathus is thought to have lived: Archaeopteryx, Juravenator, and Ostromia.

The Juravenator, however, was not a contemporary to the Compsognathus, as it lived around 151-152 million years ago.

The Archaeopteryx and Ostromia, on the other hand, might’ve crossed paths with the Compsognathus, although this isn’t certain.

Some paleontologists argue that no dinosaurs can be associated with the Compsognathus, and it was likely the top predator in its habitat. 

However, the formation was home to numerous other creatures:

  • Turtles like Eurysternum, Solnhofia, and Eurysternidae, 
  • Pterosaurs like Thamphorhynchus
  • Various fish species and invertebrates

Either way, even if the Compsognathus lived alongside other dinosaurs, it likely had no predators and happily coexisted in the same ecosystem.

Cultural Significance

Compsognathus Dinosaur standing black background
Compsognathus Dinosaur standing black background | bbevren via iStock

The Compsognathus is a popular dinosaur in the Jurassic Park franchise, having appeared in the following movies:

  • The Lost World: Jurassic Park
  • Jurassic Park III
  • Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
  • Battle at Big Rock
  • Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous
  • Jurassic World: Dominion
  • Jurassic World Camp Cretaceous: Hidden Adventure

So, if you want to see a Compsognathus in action, you now know what movies you should add to your must-watch list!

Besides its depiction in popular culture, the Compsognathus carries a huge paleontological significance thanks to its possible relation to modern birds.

It was and still is the subject of numerous research papers.

As such, we can conclude that if it had never been discovered, we wouldn’t have been able to discuss the evolution of dinosaurs, theropods, and birds so comprehensively.

Hopefully, further studies will shed light on other aspects of the Compsognathus, especially its lifestyle, behavior, and life cycle.


Having lived in what is now called Europe during the Late Jurassic, around 150 million years ago, the Compsognathus is now regarded as one of the world’s smallest theropod species.

Despite that, it was an agile hunter and runner, and it likely fed only on small creatures, like lizards.

The species is often associated with the Archaeopteryx, which was long thought to have been the oldest known bird.

Moreover, since the discovered skeletons were almost complete, they have been and still are overly studied and analyzed, thus providing dinosaur enthusiasts with more details about the appearance, behavior, evolution, and history of small theropods.


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