The Dwarf Dinosaurs of Haţeg Island

Around 70 million years ago Țara Hațegului was a tropical island in the Tethys Ocean. On this island with lush vegetation and active volcanoes lived dinosaurs, flying reptiles and other interesting animals. Their traces can still be seen today, especially along the route called The Valley of Dinosaurs, and are explained in the visitor centres of the Geopark. Some of these centres also contain reconstructions of the Hațeg dinosaurs: in Hațeg, the House of the Geopark displays the reconstruction of Balaur bondoc, in the House of Science and Art, in General Berthelot village, there are two reconstructions – Magyarosaurus dacus and Zalmoxes robustus, and in the House of Dwarf Dinosaurs in Sânpetru there is a reconstruction of Elopteryx nopcsai.

The Hațeg dinosaurs have been known for over a century. In the short interval of time that has elapsed since their first discovery, our range of knowledge of these ”dwarf giants” has continued to increase, becoming more reliable too. Today we can reconstruct the life of the Hațeg Island dinosaurs quite accurately.

The age of these dinosaurs was for a long time relatively unknown, even though most researchers placed them 60-70 million years ago (at the end of the Cretaceous). The latest studies based on the analysis of plant remains from the rocks that contain dinosaur fossils shows that the Hațeg dinosaurs lived indeed very close to the Cretaceous era, when the dinosaurs from other parts of the world, as well as many other groups of organisms, died out. These could have been among the last dinosaurs on Earth, almost bearing witness to the extinction of this group of animals that dominated the continents for over 150 million years.

The most well-known dinosaurs are:

Dwarf dinosaur – the most recent dinosaur, discovered in 2009, is the only dinosaur whose name is in Romanian, rather than in Latin. It was a ferocious carnivorous animal, even though it only measured 1.5-2m, and it was endowed with some powerful weapons: teeth, claws and speed.

Telmatosaurus transylvanicus – is part of the group of “duckbilled” dinosaurs, it was 4m long and lived around marshy areas, feeding on the succulent vegetation. This is the dinosaur whose egg nests discovered in Tuștea (General Berthelot commune) belong to.

Magyarosaurus dacus – a herbivorous dinosaur from the sauropod group (also known as ”lizzard-hipped” dinosaurs) with a very long neck and tail, the longest of the Hațeg dinosaurs (around 6m long), but over three times shorter than its relatives from other regions of the Earth.

Zalmoxes was also a herbivorous dinosaur belonging to the ornithopod group (with the pelvis similar to that of birds). It is well known for two sub-species: Z. robustus (2-2.5m long) and Z. shqiperorum (4-4.5m long).

Elopteryx nopcsai – a small carnivorous dinosaur (around 1m long), but despite its small size, it was a voracious predator who attacked in a group.

Struthiosaurus transylvanicus – another ornithopod dinosaur, belonging to the group of body-armored dinosaurs (covered with plates and bony thorns). Despite the name, Struthiosaurus does not look like an ostrich at all: it was given this name because of its numerous and elongated neck vertebrae.

Hatzegopteryx thambema – this is not a dinosaur, but a giant pterosaur (flying reptile); with a 12m wingspan it was rather like a small plane!

Why were the Hațeg dinosaurs so small?

In those times the Earth was in a continuous transformation. The land had started to fragment itself and islands were cleaving off the mainland. Activated by the tectonic plate movement, they were like drifting rafts in the primordial ocean. Hațeg was such an island, which was back then where the Mediterranean Sea is now.

Cut off from the continent, the dinosaurs were like the shipwrecked on an island, having to learn how to survive on the little they had.

Once the Hațeg Island broke off the mainland, the animals here were forced to adapt to the new living conditions in a smaller space, with fewer resources. And this was one of the causes that made these dinosaurs much smaller than their relatives on the continent.

This phenomenon is also referred to by scientists as insular dwarfism. And it seems that it is not as rare in nature as we might think. The elephants from the Mediterranean islands of Malta, Cyprus and Crete found themselves in a similar situation.