It Came From The Wastebasket #12: Coelurosaur Confusion

Historically Coelurosauria was the counterpart to the Carnosauria, with both of them representing two major lineages of theropod dinosaurs.

Created as a group in the early 20th century, coelurosaurs quickly became a dumping ground for all small-bodied theropods – including coelophysoids, compsognathids, ornithomimids, oviraptorosaurs, dromaeosaurids, and troodontids– and for a while this wastebasket taxon also included the large-bodied ceratosaurids and tyrannosauroids, before they were moved over into the carnosaurs.

But during the 1960s and 1970s this arrangement began to break down. A better understanding of groups like dromaeosaurs revealed a confusing mixture of traditional “carnosaur” and “coelurosaur” anatomical features, and paleontologists struggled to figure out where these sorts of theropods actually fit in.

The development of cladistic methods from the 1970s onwards led to efforts to clean up the coelurosaur wastebasket, trying to figure out a more accurate version of these animals’ evolutionary relationships. After briefly collapsing Coelurosauria down to just coelophysoids and “coelurids“, the growing recognition of modern birds as living theropod dinosaurs eventually resulted in the group being properly redefined in the 1980s as “birds, and all theropods closer related to them than to carnosaurs“.

An illustration showing four examples of coelurosaurs, theropod dinosaurs closely related to birds. One the left is Citipati, a bird-like feathery oviraptorosaur that has a cassowary-like crest on its head, a short beak, a long neck, feathered wings, long slender legs, and a short tail with a feather fan at the end. It's mostly colored black and white, with bright blue and yellow face markings and small eyespots on its wing and tail feathers. At the top is Albertosaurus, a tyrannosaur with short bony crests above its eyes, tiny two-fingered hands, long bird-like legs, and a long thick counterbalancing tail. It's colored with a blotchy striped pattern of yellow, red, and dark brown, with bright blue on the crests over its eyes. On the right is Yi, a small bird-like scansoriopterygid with a fluffy feathery coat, four long tail feathers, and large membranous wings supported by a bony extension from its wrist that make it look like a dino-bat or a wyvern. It's colored brownish-grey with a yellow snout and striped markings on its neck, wings, and tail feathers. At the bottom is Sinosauropteryx, a compsognathid with a typical theropod body plan – triangular head, S-shaped neck, three-clawed hands, bird-like legs, and a long tail – but it's covered in fluffy feathers which are especially bushy on its tail. it's colored ginger-and-white, with a black raccoon-like mask marking over its eyes and a stripey tail.
Clockwise from the left (not to scale): Citipati osmolskae, Albertosaurus sarcophagus, Yi qi, Sinosauropteryx prima

The coelophysoids were finally removed entirely, reclassified as a much earlier branch of theropods – but quite a few of the other groups from earlier concepts of Coelurosauria survived this reshuffling, with the compsognathids, ornithomimids, oviraptorosaurs, dromaeosaurs, and troodontids all proving themselves to have really been closely related the whole time. Meanwhile the tyrannosauroids were brought back in, along with the therizinosaurs, alvarezsauroids, and a whole bunch of paravian and avialan lineages.

(Megaraptorans might belong somewhere in the coelurosaurs, too – possibly being tyrannosauroids – but their classification is currently being disputed.)