As you may know, dinosaurs are extinct…well, that’s not entirely true. Most dinosaurs indeed died out at the end of the Cretaceous Period, around 65 million years ago. Some, however, survived and have evolved into what we now know as birds. However, most of the dinosaurs are now long gone. So how do we know what they looked like?
The short answer is: In a lot of ways, we don’t. We may never know exactly what dinosaurs looked like in life. But based on the fossil evidence they’ve left behind, and their relatives who are still around, we can formulate an educated guess and create an image of how these ancient animals looked when they were alive.
The Leg Bone’s Connected to the…Umm…
The most common evidence that remains are fossilized bones. These can help us create a basic idea of the structure of a dinosaur, but even this can be tricky. Occasionally, if they’re very lucky, paleontologists can find intact, complete dinosaur skeletons, with almost all the bones present and in the right place. However, this is usually not the case. Partial skeletons or bits of scattered bones are more common, leaving paleontologists to fill in the gaps. When creating their reconstructions, this can sometimes lead to bones ending up in the wrong place, or skeletons from two different animals being combined accidentally.
This can make for some mixed-up monsters, like the famous case of Brontosaurus, in which a skeleton missing a head was mounted with a skull resembling that of Camarasaurus. When a skull was later discovered, it ended up looking completely different! Camarasaurus had a short, blunt skull, while that of Brontosaurus (which would be renamed Apatosaurus) was actually long and narrow, like its relative Diplodocus. For more info about this mix-up, check out this story from Smithsonian Magazine.
More recently, a new description of the dinosaur Spinosaurus has caused controversy, as it depicts an animal with dramatically smaller hind legs than previous descriptions, suggesting that the dinosaur walked primarily on four legs. Some paleontologists, like Gregory S. Paul and John Hutchinson, have stated their belief that this description may be inaccurate, as it relies on combining the remains of two differently-sized Spinosaurus specimens and scaling them up to their likely proportions. It also uses bones from a related dinosaur, Sigilmassasaurus, which at the time was considered the same dinosaur as Spinosaurus but has since been re-assigned to its own genus.
Stand Up Straight! …Or Not
Even the best, most complete skeletal remains can only tell us so much. Even if you know how all the bones fit together, many mysteries remain. For example, how did dinosaurs carry themselves? For a long time, dinosaur skeletons were mounted standing in an upright posture, with their tails dragging along the ground. It’s now believed that dinosaurs held their bodies more horizontally, with their backs flat and their tails raised off the ground. These changes were made as scientists began to better understand how dinosaur bones fit together, and noticed that fossilized dinosaur tracks lacked any indication of tails touching the ground.
But that doesn’t mean there still isn’t some debate about dinosaur posture. Recent discussions have focused on the long necks of sauropod dinosaurs. While it is believed by most paleontologists that their necks projected forward horizontally, some have proposed that they were held more vertically, with an S-shaped curve like swans and geese. We may never know for sure, but those who study dinosaurs are constantly making new discoveries that shape how we view these creatures.
Scales or Feathers? Why Not Both?
Beyond the skeleton, it gets even more difficult to predict a dinosaur’s appearance. For example: What kind of skin covering did they have? Sometimes, evidence of this is preserved in the fossils record. We know some dinosaurs had scales, and others had feathers, because impressions of these elements have been found alongside skeletons. Some dinosaurs also have “quill knobs” on their bones, which are structures that are linked to feathers in modern day animals. However, evidence of scales and feathers is very rarely preserved, leaving scientists to speculate. By comparing them with their modern day relatives like birds and certain reptiles, we can build a better picture.
This is also how other aspects, like musculature, are approached. In the past, a style that has been dubbed “shrink-wrapping” was popular in paleo-art. This term basically refers to a dinosaur that looks like its skin has been tightly wrapped around its skeleton, with little regard to muscle, fat, and other filling material. Imagine how different today’s animals would look if you applied this process to them! A hippopotamus or an elephant would look very different. For more on dinosaur posture and “shrink-wrapping”, check out this piece from Scientific American.
How we see dinosaurs today is quite different than how people viewed them a hundred, fifty, or even a dozen years ago. As new discoveries are made, our ideas about the past change accordingly. One thing is for certain, though: Safari Ltd® will always strive to take the latest scientific research into account when creating its accurate and accredited museum quality figures.
Bernie’s Bonus: Play a Matching Game
Using a Safari Ltd® Dinosaur Skulls TOOB® and Prehistoric World dinosaur figures, you can create a fun matching activity to help children compare dinosaurs’ skeletal remains with how they are believed to have looked in life. The TOOB® includes skulls of Diplodocus, Nigersaurus, Brachiosaurus, Velociraptor, Triceratops, Dilophosaurus, Tyrannosaurus Rex, Parasaurolophus, and Dracorex among others. Have your child see if they can match the skull with its corresponding Prehistoric World figure! (Note: Carnotaurus and Oviraptor skulls will have to be put aside for this activity.)