Ornitholestes sketch.

Ornitholestes (meaning "bird robber") was a small theropod dinosaur of the late Jurassic of Western Laurasia (the area that was to become North America). To date, it is known only from a single partial skeleton, and badly crushed skull found at the Bone Cabin Quarry near Medicine Bow, Wyoming, in 1900.[1] It was described by Henry Fairfield Osborn in 1903.[2] An incomplete hand[1] was later attributed to Ornitholestes, although it now appears to belong to Tanycolagreus.[3] The type (and only known) species is O. hermanni. The species name honors the American Museum of Natural History preparator Adam Hermann.


Ornitholestes was a bipedal carnivore.[2] Its head was proportionally smaller than that of most other predatory dinosaurs, but the skull was heavily built, with a short snout and robust lower jaw.[3] The orbits (eye sockets) were quite large, measuring over 25 percent of the skull's length.[4] There is no indication of a bony eye ring.[5]

The front teeth of Ornitholestes were somewhat conical, with reduced serrations; the back teeth were recurved and more sharply serrated, similar to those of other theropod dinosaurs.[6] Henry Fairfield Osborn (1903) counted four teeth in the premaxillae, of which the front tooth was the largest in the upper jaw.[7] In contrast, Gregory S. Paul (1988) depicted the skull with only three premaxillary teeth remaining, much smaller than those illustrated by Osborn.[8] Each maxilla (main tooth-bearing bone in the upper jaw) contained ten teeth, and each dentary (tooth-bearing bone in the lower jaw) contained twelve teeth.[9] The tooth rows of Ornitholestes were short, with the dentary (lower) row being even shorter than the maxillary (upper) row,[10] even though the dentary bone itself was exceptionally long at the back, reaching a point below the middle of the eye socket.[11] Teeth did not extend as far back as the orbits, and neither tooth row spanned much more than one-third of the skull.[12]

An area of broken bone near the external naris (nostril) appears to bulge upward, which led Gregory S. Paul to suggest in Predatory Dinosaurs of the World (1988) that Ornitholestes had a nasal horn "rather like a chicken's comb in looks."[13] Both Oliver W.M. Rauhut (2003) and Kenneth Carpenter et al. (2005a) rejected that interpretation, and indicated that the upward flare of bone was due to post-mortem crushing of the skull.[14] Paul's updated illustration of Ornitholestes in his 2010 Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs no longer contains the nasal horn.

Ornitholestes had a relatively short neck with a slight sigmoidal (S-shaped) curve.[16] The tail was long and whiplike, comprising over half of the body's length.[17] Not all of the vertebrae were preserved, but Osborn (1917) estimated that Ornitholestes had nine or ten cervical (neck) vertebrae, thirteen dorsal (back) vertebrae, four sacral (hip) vertebrae, and 39 to 44 caudal (tail) vertebrae.[18] Carpenter et al. (2005a) recorded that the specimen contained five sacral vertebrae.[19] Ornitholestes was a short-bodied theropod, and this was reflected in the short front-to-back dimensions of the cervical and dorsal vertebrae.[20]

The forelimbs of Ornitholestes were relatively long, slightly under two-thirds the length of the hind legs.[21] The humerus (upper arm bone) was heavily built, and somewhat longer than the radius and ulna (forearm bones).[22] Both the humerus and radius were straight-shafted.[23] The claws on digits I and II of the hand were about the same size.[24] Although the hand's third ungual (claw bone) was not preserved, extrapolation from the closest relatives of Ornitholestes indicates that it was probably shorter than the first two.[24]

Ornitholestes is often portrayed as a fast, long-legged theropod, but its lower limb bones were fairly short.[25] Osborn (1917) calculated that the, missing, tibia (shin bone) was only about 70.6% as long as the femur (thigh bone).[26] The metatarsals (foot bones) were spaced closely, but not fused together.[27] As is typical of theropods, the feet were tridactyl (with three clawed weight-bearing toes).[28] John H. Ostrom (1969) noted that the claw of digit II (the innermost toe) was larger than those of digits III and IV, and suggested that this digit may have borne a modified sickle claw similar to that of Deinonychus.[29] However, as both Ostrom (1969) and Paul (1988) noted, the poor preservation of digit II makes this hypothesis difficult to confirm.[30]

In his 1903 description, Osborn wrote that the length of Ornitholestes along "the skull and vertebral column as restored" was 2.22 m (7.28 ft).[31] However, this reconstruction was inaccurate, being based in part on Othniel Charles Marsh's restoration of the basal sauropodomorph Anchisaurus, and the neck and trunk were both too elongated.[32] David Norman (1985) and John Foster (2007) both estimated that Ornitholestes was about 2 m (6.6 ft) long.[33] Gregory S. Paul's 1988 Predatory Dinosaurs of the World listed the length of Ornitholestes as approximately 2.08 m (6.82 ft).[34]

Paul (1988) and Foster (2007) both estimated that Ornitholestes weighed 12.6 kg (27.8 lb).[35] John A. Long and Peter Schouten (2008) suggested a slightly higher figure, 15 kg (33 lb).

Discovery and namingEdit

Ornitholestes was the first theropod to be discovered in the 1900s.[37] The holotype skeleton (AMNH 619) was excavated in July 1900 in the Bone Cabin Quarry in Wyoming by an American Museum of Natural History expedition by Peter C. Kaisen, Paul Miller and Frederic Brewster Loomis.[31][38] It represents a partial skeleton with skull, including numerous elements of the vertebral column, the forelimbs, pelvis and hindlimbs. Henry Fairfield Osborn named and scientifically described the specimen in 1903.[39] The genus name Ornitholestes, initially suggested by Theodore Gill, means "bird robber" and is derived from the Greek ὄρνις/ornis, ornithos ("bird") and λῃστήσ/lestes ("robber").[40] The species name (O. hermanni) honors Adam Hermann, the head preparator at the Museum, who directed the restoration and mounting of the skeleton.[31]

An incomplete hand (AMNH 587) was assigned to Ornitholestes by Osborn in his 1903 description of the genus.[41] However, as Gregory S. Paul (1988) noted, the poor preservation of the corresponding elements in the type specimen made this association "tentative."[42] In 2005, Kenneth Carpenter et al. described a new small theropod, Tanycolagreus, whose skeleton was found in Bone Cabin Quarry only a few hundred yards from AMNH 587.[43] Since AMNH 587 was virtually identical to the preserved hand of the Tanycolagreus type specimen, it is now considered to belong to that dinosaur and not to Ornitholestes.[44] Following this reassignment, Phil Senter (2006) noted that "our knowledge of Ornitholestes can be drawn now only from the holotype."[45] John Foster (2007) reported that some fragments from Dry Mesa Quarry may belong to Ornitholestes,[46] though these have not yet been described.

In 1920 Charles Whitney Gilmore concluded that Ornitholestes was identical to Coelurus;[47] in 1934 Oliver Perry Hay recognised only a difference at the species level, naming a Coelurus hermanni,[48] but in 1980 John Ostrom revived the genus.

Classification and systematicsEdit


  1. ^ a b "Ornitholestes." In: Dodson, Peter & Britt, Brooks & Carpenter, Kenneth & Forster, Catherine A. & Gillette, David D. & Norell, Mark A. & Olshevsky, George & Parrish, J. Michael & Weishampel, David B. The Age of Dinosaurs. Publications International, LTD. p. 76. ISBN 0-7853-0443-6.
  2. ^ Osborn, Henry Fairfield (1903). "Ornitholestes hermanni, a new compsognathoid dinosaur from the Upper Jurassic" (pdf). Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 19 (12): 459–464. 
  3. ^ Carpenter, Kenneth; Miles, Clifford; Ostrom, John H.; and Cloward, Karen (2005). "Redescription of the small maniraptoran theropods Ornitholestes and Coelurus from the Upper Jurassic Morrison Formation of Wyoming". in Carpenter, Kenneth (ed.). The Carnivorous Dinosaurs. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. pp. 49–71. ISBN 0-253-34539-1. 


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