Mononykus was a small dinosaur, only 1 metre (3.3 ft) long. Other characteristics include fused wrist bones similar to those of birds, and a keeled breastbone. It differed from close relatives Shuvuuia and Parvicursor in several details of its skeleton, including a pubic bone that is triangular in cross section, and different proportions in the toe bones.
Mononykus was a member of the family Alvarezsauridae and, like its relatives, had very strange, stubby forearms with one large, approximately 7.5-centimetre (3.0 in) long claw (hence its name). The other two claws had disappeared (however, a close relative of Mononykus, Shuvuuia, had two vestigial claws, alongside one large claw). The purpose of these highly specialized arms is still a mystery, but some scientists have suggested they were used to break open termite mounds (like modern anteaters), and therefore it is possible that they fed primarily on insects.