• U.S.

Science: The Petite Monster

2 minute read

To French paleontologists, the limestone quarries on the Canjuers Plateau in the Alpine foothills northwest of Nice are a rich mine of prehistoric treasures. Once a warm, atoll-dotted sea, the beds recently have yielded a pterodactyl (the earliest flying reptile), the fossilized remains of an ancient seagoing crocodile and a 140 million-year-old fish so well preserved that its scales are still clearly visible. Now, in the course of routine stonecutting, a quarry owner named Louis Ghirardi has turned up an even more important prize: a superbly preserved fossil of a birdlike dinosaur, one of the smallest ever unearthed.

The midget has been identified as a Compsognathus corallestris, which, loosely translated from the Greek, means “long-jawed coral dweller.” A shade over 15 in. high and only 49 in. long, the tiny reptile had a skeleton similar in construction to those of monster dinosaurs like the Brachiosaurus, largest land animal ever to roam the earth. But corallestris hardly seems like a dinosaur at all. Whereas other dinosaurs lived on dry land or in swamps, corallestris made its home on offshore atolls. Like a heron or cormorant, the hollow-boned creature probably made use of its long supple neck in catching fish or lizards (the remains of a tiny undigested reptile are preserved inside of it). Although part of its forelimbs are missing, they seem to have been equipped with ducklike webbing. Says Paleontologist Gerard Thomel of Nice University: “Our petite dinosaur could walk and no doubt run, too. But I am pretty sure that it also could swim and even dive.”

In fact, except for a lack of feathers, corallestris has a strong resemblance to the first true bird, archaeopteryx, which made its appearance toward the end of the age of dinosaurs. Thus Thomel thinks that examination of the dinosaur’s fowl-like characteristics may shed some light on the evolution of reptiles into birds. Trouble is, he says, scientists may never get the chance to look for more specimens. In September the government expropriated the area for a missile and artillery range for the French army. Defense Minister Michel Debré has promised that the government will continue to allow digs at Canjuers, but Thomel admits to a certain Gallic skepticism. “The army will be shooting near the site,” he says, “and the soldiers will pilfer the beds and keep or sell fossils as souvenirs.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com