Sciurumimus (Greek for "squirrel mimic"); pronounced skee-ORE-oo-MY-muss
Swamps of western Europe
Late Jurassic (150 million years ago)
Sizea nd Weight:
About two feet long and 5-10 pounds
Insects (when young), meat (when older)
Large eyes; bipedal posture; feathers
Germany's Solnhofen fossil beds have yielded some of the most spectacular dinosaur fossils of all time, including multiple specimens of Archaeopteryx. Now, researchers have announced the discovery of an Archaeopteryx contemporary that's important for two reasons: first, the juvenile specimen of Sciurumimus has been preserved in sharp anatomical detail, and second, this feathered dinosaur occupied a different branch of the family tree than "normal" feathered dinos like Velociraptor or Therizinosaurus.
Technically, Sciurumimus ("squirrel mimic") has been classified as a "megalosaur" theropod, that is, a carnivorous dinosaur most closely related to the primitive Megalosaurus. The problem is that all of the other feathered dinosaurs identified to date have been "coelurosaurs," a truly enormous family that encompasses raptors, tyrannosaurs, and the small, feathered "dino-birds" of the late Cretaceous period. What this means is that feathered theropods may have been the rule rather than the exception--and if theropods had feathers, then why not plant-eating dinosaurs as well? Alternatively, it may be the case that the earliest common ancestor of all dinosaurs sported feathers, and some later dinosaurs lost this adaptation as a result of evolutionary pressures.
Its feathers aside, Sciurumimus is certainly the most strikingly preserved dinosaur fossil to be discovered in the last 20 years. The outlines of this theropod are so sharply preserved, and the Sciurumimus juvenile has such big, adorable eyes, that the type fossil almost looks like a still image from an animated TV show. In fact, Sciurumimus may wind up teaching scientists as much about baby dinosaurs as it does about feathered dinosaurs; after all, this two-foot-long, harmless-looking squirt was destined to grow into a vicious, 20-foot-long super-predator!