The Coelophysis in the Subway

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In the latest episode of the Museum's web series Shelf Life, you'll get a tour of Ghost Ranch, a storied fossil bed in New Mexico where Museum paleontologists have plied their trade for decades.

In 1947, Museum paleontologist Edwin H. Colbert and his team were digging in one of the four quarries of Ghost Ranch when they came upon a veritable graveyard of the carnivorous dinosaur Coelophysis bauri.

These early dinosaurs were small, fast, bipedal predators that likely chased down prey, much like tiny versions of the famed Tyrannosaurus rex, but with pointed faces and arms that were longer relative to their bodies. The specimens that Colbert and his team found were remarkably well-preserved and complete.

Artist's rendering of a living Coelophysis bauri.
Courtesy of National Park Service/J. Martz

While we tend to think of dinosaurs as giants, they started small like Coelophysis, with enormous species evolving later on.

“This was one of the first dinosaurs, or at least it represents an early dinosaur body plan,” says paleontologist Sterling Nesbitt. “And this is what probably all early dinosaurs looked like.”

Coelophysis is also among the bronze fossil casts you can see and touch in the 81st Street subway station. That very cast, in fact, helped Museum researchers dispel a longstanding hypothesis about the species decades after its initial discovery.

For a long while, Coelophysis was thought to be a cannibal. This was due to the presence of bones in the belly of one of the Coelophysis specimens interpreted by Colbert and his team. But while waiting for a train one night, Nesbitt, then a doctoral student at the Museum, noticed something off about the cast when he glanced at some of the remains in the stomach.

“I just went over to look, and that’s when I could see the head of the thigh bone,” says Nesbitt, now a Museum research associate and professor at Virginia Tech. “And it looked like it wasn’t a dinosaur.”

Coelophysis Cast
The bronze cast of Coelophysis bauri in the 81st Street subway station.
© AMNH/M. Shanley

Nesbitt’s examinations of the subway cast prompted him and Curator Mark Norell to take a closer look at the Coelophysis fossils in the Museum’s collections, which forced them to rethink Colbert’s initial hypothesis about cannibalism. Their conclusion: the bones in the stomach belonged to one of the many creatures in the same area more closely related to crocodiles, such as Hesperosuchus agilis.

“Coelophysis was just hungry,” Nesbitt says. “It was eating another animal that lived at the same time, and it wasn’t a cannibal.”

So next time you’re in the subway, remember to take a good look at the casts adorning the walls. There’s no telling what you might spot.