Who Was the Snuggliest Dinosaur of All?

For over a century and a half, dinosaurs were viewed as monstrous, scaly reptiles. Scores of science fiction stories hinged on the peril we would face if we ever got close to one. And though it’s still true that encountering a Tyrannosaurus while on foot would likely be fatal, over the past several decades paleontologists have discovered a variety of dinosaurs that aren’t nearly as threatening as some of their more prodigious and prestigious relatives. These finds raise a question that I doubt the Victorian naturalists who first described the dinosaurs could have anticipated – who was the snuggliest of the non-avian dinosaurs?

As much as I enjoy imagining riding around town on the back of an 80-foot-long Apatosaurus, sauropod size presents a problem. You can’t hug your sauropod with human arms. And while Pleo-sized apatosaur infants would be pretty cute, especially if any were fuzzy, they’d soon grow too large to curl up on your lap. Fast-growing Apatosaurus may have packed over 1,000 pounds per year, so it wouldn’t be long before your beloved pet would be able to trample you into the carpet.

Shovel-beaked hadrosaurs such as Edmontosaurus would present similar problems, and even little hadrosaurs such as “Joe” the Parasaurolophus had tough, scaly skin that wouldn’t be very comfortable to get close to. Many ceratopsids would add the risk of being gored by their distinctive horns, and it’s obvious why embracing a Stegosaurus or Ankylosaurus would be a bad idea. (How they… erm… hugged each other is still a puzzle.)

Don't adopt a Deinonychus. Seriously. Art by Emily Willoughby.
Don’t adopt a Deinonychus. Seriously. Art by Emily Willoughby.

Enfluffled theropods are a softer set of candidates. But caution is still needed. You wouldn’t want to end up as a red smear being preened from the fuzz of the 30-foot-long Yutyrannus or have your family come home to find you eviscerated by the Deinonychus that seemed like the perfect birthday present. Small and fluffy are key characteristics here, and, fortunately, paleontologists have found an array of little theropods that would be suitably cuddlesome.

Mei long seems like a good bet. Two specimens of this roughly two-foot-long “sleeping dragon” have been found curled up in a sleeping position, and, based on this dinosaur’s close relationship to other feathery troodontids, Mei was probably covered in plumage. The little dinosaurs would still have a wicked little retractable claw on each foot and a mouth full of small teeth that could give you a nasty nip, but Mei is not so different from the combination of soft and pointy embodied by housecats.

If I had the opportunity to huddle with a non-avian dinosaur, though, I’d pick Sciurumimus. This 150 million year old dinosaur is only known from a juvenile specimen that measures a little more than two feet long, and what makes the fossil of this “squirrel mimic” so remarkable are remnants of filamentous protofeathers preserved alongside the bones. More fluffy than feathery, Sciurumimus could have nestled in a fashion similar to the sleeping pose that Mei shows. Provided that I didn’t lose any fingers to those toothy jaws, Sciurumimus would be a splendid dinosaur to snuggle.

Of course, my pick is entirely subjective. I can already hear the lamentations of ornithischian specialists. “Won’t somebody please think of the ornithopods?” I’m sure there are cases to be made for the leptoceratopsids and heterodontosaurids, too. And paleontologists have only uncovered a fraction of the dinosaurs that are locked in the fossil record. The most squee-worthy dinosaurs may still be awaiting discovery.

Top image by Emily Willoughby.

References:

Erickson, G., Curry Rogers, K., Yerby, S. 2001. Dinosaurian growth patterns and rapid avian growth rates. Nature. 412: 429-433

Farke, A., Chok, D., Herrero, A., Scolieri, B., Werning, S. 2013. Ontogeny in the tube-created dinosaur Parasaurolophus (Hadrosauridae) and heterochrony in hadrosaurids. PeerJ. 1: e182.

Gao, C., Morschhauser, E., Varricchio, D., Liu, J., Zhao, B. 2012. A second soundly sleeping dragon: New anatomical details of the Chinese Troodontid Mei long with implications for phylogeny and taphonomy. PLOS One. 7, 9: e45203.

Myhrvold, N. 2013. Revisiting the estimation of dinosaur growth rates. PLoS ONE 8, 12: e81917.

Rauhut, O., Foth, C., Tischlinger, H., Norell, M. 2012. Exceptionally preserved juvenile megalosauroid theropod dinosaur with filamentous integument from the Late Jurassic of Germany. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 109, 29: 11746–11751.

7 thoughts on “Who Was the Snuggliest Dinosaur of All?

  1. Um, we already have “snuggly” dinosaurs. Parrots, parakeets and the like. I can offer no hypothesis, but the fact that humans are not routinely attacked by flying birds of any and all sizes suggests to me that one cannot assume that small dinos would have been particularly savage toward humans. However, having been exposed to much popular fiction, I’m glad we can never test that scenario.

  2. Heh heh that dinosaur pet guide is great! I’d love lots of dinosaur ‘pets’ … but I’d rather not keep them as housepets but on a ranch. On a different planet, too … no Jurassic Parks thank you. Let’s find a nice planet out there, terraform it, and resurrect dinosaurs and other cool extinct things to populate it.

  3. I am not sure why ‘fuzzy, furry, snuggliness’ would be a criteria for a good dinosaur pet. I know there are many zoo keepers/herptologists who would attest that a scary, scaly, carnivorous, 10 foot long Komodo dragon is far more docile than a whole laundry list of much smaller, cuter, ‘snugglier’ animals, and from firsthand experience with other very large monitors like Black Throats and Asian Water Monitors, I would agree.

    @ Dave Gentile, I believe the only reason humans are not routinely attacked by birds, is simply due to the fact humans are too large to be regarded as prey by them. I do recall a recent account of an eagle attempting to carry off a young boy, but he proved to heavy for it, and was released.

    1. @Dan, good point. I’m not a scientist, but some scientists dig deeper than is apparently necessary to a layman. An example would be an exhaustive analysis, that I think was described in these pages, of why dogs seem to align themselves with Earth’s magnetic field when they go potty outside.

      So it seems to me that a sufficient number of birds, attacking in concert, could disable a human enough to allow them to feast on his or her flesh.

      There are probably lots of scenarios where things could happen, but don’t, and one has to decide whether there’s a payoff in tackling the question. For instance, do birds lack the drive to do that, or are the energy costs too high?

      I just watched a documentary about an unfortunate young woman who was killed by a group of 3 coyotes on Cape Breton Island in 2009, and researchers concluded that the critical factor explaining the animals’ lack of fear of her was that they were actually coywolves or Eastern Coyotes. The program didn’t explain whether the “Wolfish” differentiator was genetic, instinctual or behavioral, but they did note that (all) Coyotes are capable of adapting well to whatever environment they’re in.

  4. We already have a cute, cuddly dinosaur: his name is Barney, and if that’s what would have to be genetically done to make a dinosaur human/pet friendly, then I would rather see them in movies and book illustrations than reduced to teddy bears.

  5. Well, considering humans could transform wolves into tiny dogs like pekingeses, I’m sure breeders could to miracles with a soft and fluffy dinosaur if given enough time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *