Coelophysis is known from a number of complete fossil skeletons of the species C. bauri, which was a lightly built dinosaur which measured up to 3 metres (9.8 ft) in length and which was more than a meter tall at the hips. Paul (1988) estimated the weight of the gracile form at 15 kg (33 lb), and the weight of the robust form at 20 kg (44 lb). Coelophysis was a bipedal, carnivorous, theropod dinosaur that was a fast and agile runner. Despite being an early dinosaur, the evolution of the theropod body form had already advanced greatly from creatures like Herrerasaurus and Eoraptor. The torso of Coelophysis conforms to the basic theropod body shape, but the pectoral girdle displays some interesting special characteristics: C. bauri had a furcula (wishbone), the earliest known example in a dinosaur. Coelophysis also preserves the ancestral condition of possessing four digits on the hand (manus). It had only three functional digits, the fourth embedded in the flesh of the hand.
Coelophysis had narrow hips, forelimbs adapted for grasping, and narrow feet. Its neck and tail were long and slender. The pelvis and hindlimbs of C. bauri are also slight variations on the theropod body plan. It has the open acetabulum and straight ankle hinge that define the Dinosauria. The hindlimb ended in a three-toed foot (pes), with a raised hallux. The tail had an unusual structure within its interlocking prezygapophysis of its vertebrae, which formed a semi-rigid lattice, apparently to stop the tail from moving up and down.
Coelophysis had a long narrow head (approximately 270 mm (0.9 ft)), with large, forward-facing eyes that afforded it stereoscopic vision and as a result excellent depth perception. Rinehart et al. (2004) described the complete sclerotic ring found for a juvenile Coelophysis bauri (specimen NMMNH P-4200), and compared it to data on the sclerotic rings of reptiles and birds and concluded that this Coelophysis was a diurnal, visually oriented predator." The study found that its vision was superior to most lizards' vision, and ranked with that of modern birds of prey. The eyes of Coelophysis appear to be the closest to those of eagles and hawks, with a high power of accommodation. The data also suggested poor night vision which would mean this dinosaur had a round rather than a split pupil.
Coelophysis had an elongated snout with large fenestrae which helped to reduce skull weight, while narrow struts of bones preserved the structural integrity of the skull. The neck had a pronounced sigmoid curve. The braincase is known in Coelophysis bauri but little data could be derived because the skull was crushed. Unlike some other theropods, the cranial ornamentation of Coelophysis was not located at the top of its skull. Low, laterally raised bony ridges were present on the dorsolateral margin of the nasal and lacrimal bones in the skull, directly above the antorbital fenestra.
Appearance in Media
In the first episode of Walking with Dinosaurs, it is shown hunting lungfish, cynodonts and eating a dying Postosuchus as well as each other during a drought. It also appeared in When Dinosaurs Roamed America.