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Categories: TheropodaHerbivoreItalyEarly Cretaceous

SCIPIONYX

Pronunciation: sip-ee-ON-iks
Meaning: Scipio Claw
Named by: Sasso & Signore (1998)
Previous names: None known
First discovery: Pietraroia, Italy
Roar factor: 0/10

Scipionyx samniticus

For dozens of decades the Italians had to sit by as even the poorest countries in Europe paraded their ground-breaking fossils. It wasn't until 1981 that they discovered their first dinosaur in a limestone bed just north of Naples, but what a beauty it was and unlike anything else from anywhere.

Buried in the bed of an ancient lagoon (judging by the copious remains of nearby freshwater organisms, shrimps, fishes, and crocodilians) may be the reason for Scipionyx fantastic state of preservation. Unfortunately, it was reburied for 12 years in the dusty cellar of Giovanni Todesco, a shoemaker and keen amature fossil collector from Verona, but, after a word from science reporter Franco Capone (no relation to Al, though he was told to hand the fossils over "or else") Tedesco personally delivered his prized posession to the superintendance at Naples in an overnight travel bag. All Italian fossils are property of the state and who wants Aurelio Zen breathing down their neck?!

By 1993 Scipionyx was back in Salerno, the province with territorial responsibility for safeguarding fossils from the village of Pietratoia, and scientists were so utterly overwhelmed at its return it took them a year to pick up a micro-chisel or brush! After many months Scipionyx was eventually cleaned and Sergio Rampinelli—the preparator—stood and stared slack-jawed as its internal plumbing revealed itself, then a blast of ultraviolet light applied by Drs John A. Ruben and Willem J. Hillenius lit up its organs like a color-coded engineering diagram.

Clearly visible are fossilized soft tissues including its intestines, windpipe, muscles, and what appears to be an expectionally large liver attached in part to an "Hepatic piston diaphram" which some experts claim pumped oxygen into its lungs in a manner more akin to crocodiles than birds. Throw in an ornithomimid-like pelvis, dromaeosaurid-like forelimbs, hands and skull elements, and troodontid-like neck vertebrae and you have a critter that isn't easy to classify. It may be a maniraptoran, possibly a compsognathid, but it's missing the lower part of its hind legs so we don't know if it had second digit "killing claws", and despite its pristine condition it didn't have the "proto" feathers you might expect to find on a "hand snatcher".

Nicknamed "cagnolino" (little doggie) by Giovanni Todesco, "Ambrogio" (after the patron saint of Milan) by Giorgio Teruzzi, "Dromaeodaimon irene" in the 1995 thesis of Marco Signore, "Ciro" by the Italians, and "Skippy" by anyone who has problems with Italian, Scipionyx was just a hatchling with an oversized skull, huge eyes and a stubby, rounded snout, though experts summize that it wouldn't have been more than a meter and a half in length even after its cuteness was long gone.
Etymology
Scipionyx is derived from "scipio" (an ancient Roman family name from the Latin scipio meaning "staff, stick") and the Greek "onyx" (claw), named for both Italian geologist Scipione Breisak (1748-1826), the 18th-19th century Italian geologist who first described fossils from Pietraroia in 1798, and ruthless Roman general Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus (237-183 BC), famous for defeating Hannibal during the Punic Wars. The species epithet, samniticus (sam-NIT-i-kus) means "from Samnium" - the Latin name for the Benevento Province.
Discovery
The remains of Scipionyx were discovered by amateur paleontologist Giovanni Todesco at "Le Cavere" quarry in the Pietraroia Limestone Formation, Benevento Province, Italy, approximately 50 kilometers from Naples, in 1981.
The holotype (SBA-SA 163760) is the almost complete skeleton of a juvenile, lacking only the end of its tail, the lower legs and the claw of its right second finger.
References
• C. Dal Sasso and M. Signore (1998) "Exceptional soft tissue preservation in a theropod dinosaur from Italy".
• Cristiano dal Sasso & Simone Maganuco (2011) "Scipionyx samniticus (Theropoda: Compsognathidae) from the Lower Cretaceous of Italy — Osteology, ontogenetic assessment, phylogeny, soft tissue anatomy, taphonomy and palaeobiology".
(The most extensive description of a single dinosaur species ever!)
• John A. Ruben, Cristiano Dal Sasso, Nicholas R. Geist, Willem J. Hillenius, Terry D. Jones, Marco Signore (1999) "Pulmonary Function and Metabolic Physiology of Theropod Dinosaurs".
• Cristiano Dal Sasso and Giuseppe Brillante (2005) "Dinosaurs of Italy" (com) / (uk).
Estimations
Timeline:
Era: Mesozoic
Period: Early Cretaceous
Timespan: 112-100 million years ago
Age: Albian
Vital Stats:
Est. Max. Length: 0.3 meters
Est. Max. Height: ?
Est. Max. Weight: 0.5 kg
Diet: Carnivorous
             
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