SCIPIONYX SAMNITICUS: Life and Death.

Acrylics and inks on cardboard.

SCIPIONYX SAMNITICUS

A work in collaboration with Dr.Cristiano Dal Sasso and Marco Signore from the Museo Civico de Historia Naturale Di Milano and Bristol University respectively.

The very first Italian Dinosaur was a remarkable discovery... for years it was enigmatic news (first disclosed by the periodical "OGGI"; the equivalent to a "Paris Match" or "Hello" magazine... hardly what we could consider "fashionable gossip" !) and remained undescribed until Cristiano Dal Sasso and Marco Signore finally published the paper in the journal Nature.
Even if part of the legs and most of the tail were missing, it was an almost complete tiny skeleton of a theropod hatchling with enormous eyes.
Parts of the fossil are so perfectly preserved that even the intestines and their external striated texture can be discerned clearly. What was the cause of this preservation? Could it be something that Scipionyx ate (David Martill's first question)? Ultraviolet photographs of the specimen showed what has been tentatively described as the phantom traces of organs, including a sizable liver right inside the rib cage.
But nothing apart from the bones has left traces as well preserved as the intestines. It has been argued that the ultraviolet photographs represent an almost complete X-ray picture of the whole internal anatomy but the 'whole picture' is far from clear.

Other anatomical characteristics include typical enormous maniraptoran hands (there's a continued debate about the nature of the articulation of the fingers and wrist. See Deinonychus for more details) that prompted early reconstructions as a hypothetical dromaeosaur. Further analysis revealed that it was not a dromaeosaur but maybe closer to Ornitholestes. The fourth maxillary tooth was longer, almost making it look like tiny 'vampire' dinosaur: Perhaps this is a specific characteristic of the species.

The supposed placement of internal organs (specially the liver) originated an ongoing controversy sponsored by John Ruben and his team at the Oregon University. Ruben inferred that Scipionyx had a breathing liver-pump system similar to crocodiles (precluding the air sac system characteristic of birds, hence theropods could not be ancestors of birds). This turned automatically dinosaurs in cold-blooded 'turbo-charged' reptiles and erased them from the any possible direct direct link to birds... a lot of sweeping assumptions based on phantom traces of supposed organs I think!

I find their conclusion erroneous and misleading. In any case, Ruben seemed to forget that Scipionyx had the same pelvic arrangement than any other dinosaur and of course that includes Archaeopteryx... and Archaeopteryx is considered definitively a 'bird'... was it also a cold blooded, liver-pump reptile out of the direct ancestry of birds which evolved feathers by convergent evolution? No, I dont think so.

This nest reconstruction was inspired after I had the privilege of meeting the original describers and authors of the Scipionyx paper: Cristiano Dal Sasso and Marco Signore. I managed to study a very detailed cast of the specimen and magnified photographs. Marco Signore asked me to do a painting that would illustrate his poster at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in Denver 1999. Signore's poster was about nesting behaviour and he needed to show a behavioural scene of Scipionyx ("Skippy" for many but most properly "Ciro" for Cristiano Dal Sasso). The presentation included the showing of one of the only two casts done from the original specimen.
The nest shows two possible scenarios: Ciro as a precocial chick, ready to leave the nest and start hunting immediately after hatching, and Ciro as the altricial chick with their parents bringing food and taking care of them for a while.
The dead Scipionyx was traced on the background was reconstructed exactly on top of life-sized photographs of the original fossil.

The anatomical reconstructions have been approved by Dal Sasso and Signore. 

 

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