A very fluffy Sciurumimus in the Jurassic rain.
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Art by Emily Willoughby.
A very fluffy Sciurumimus in the Jurassic rain.

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“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 eachhugged each other is still a puzzle.)

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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

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.