Turbulent Taxonomy

In 1842  the Victorian anatomist Sir Richard Owen established the taxon ‘Dinosauria’ to describe a group of distinct fossil reptile species from England. The term ‘dinosaur’ is a combination of two Ancient Greek words which are ‘deinos’ meaning ‘fearfully great’ and ‘sauros’ meaning ‘lizard’. You’ll often see ‘deinos’ translated as ‘terrible’, but it’s meant more as ‘terror-inducing to behold’ more than terrible in a mean, nasty, savage way.

We can’t really blame Owen for this slightly hyperbolic description. The only three dinosaur species known to him at the time were all big and featured prominent teeth, claws, and spikes. It would be over a century before we got used to the idea of small, feathery dinosaurs. The word ‘sauros’, however, has led to no end of confusion, and is just one of many such examples that has misled the general …

The Life Appearance of Dinosaurs, and Common Myths Surrounding It

Let’s face it, we might not ever fully and completely know what every species of non-avian dinosaur looked like when it was alive. Heck, we probably won’t even discover every dinosaur that ever lived. Fossilizing is all about dying in the right place at the right time, and entire species probably came and went without leaving any trace of a geological record. It might seem sad that some dinosaurs lived and died with nothing to remember them by, but is recognition by humans really the only honor that a species gets in the course of time? Well, that’s a topic for another time, so let’s go back to the life appearance of dinosaurs.

We know a surprising amount about what dinosaurs looked like when they were alive considering we mostly just have their bones. But that’s not to say that’s …

When Dinosaurs “Ruled” the Earth

There’s this idea that, from about 233 to 66 million years ago, the planet belonged to the dinosaurs. That from the late Triassic till the end of the Cretaceous the world was exclusively the domain of this lineage of reptiles. Some even think that all the other types of animals that inhabited Earth during this time are also called ‘dinosaurs’ simply due to the fact that they existed during this key time span (see our article on what dinosaurs really are for why this is incorrect).

It’s certainly true that the Dinosauria are one of the most noticeable, beloved, and defining groups of the Mesozoic Era. No one’s going to be surprised that a museum dedicated to dinosaurs (not to mention your humble author writing from there) is going to have something of a bias towards these creatures. However, I …

The Other Tyrants

The fame and glory of Tyrannosaurus rex has been repeatedly hyped endlessly ever since it was first described in 1905. Once T. rex stormed into the public consciousness, no other predatory dinosaur found before or since could measure up to its legacy, though a few came close. It might be news to many people, though, that Tyrannosaurus was not the only tyrannosaurid, a family which contains a menagerie of fascinating tyrant reptiles. These beasts were often the lords of their domain, millions of years before old ‘rex’ appeared on the scene, so let’s take a little survey of them now.

The tyrannosaurids all have a few things in common: they were large, bipedal theropods with fused nasal bones, incisor-like front teeth, and a prominent crest across the back of the skull (Holtz, 2004). The basal tyrannosauroids had three fingers, like …

The Calls of the Past: How Dinosaurs Might Have Communicated

Looking at a dinosaur skeleton in a museum display mount or its isolated bones in a collections drawer, it can sometimes be hard to think of these animals as living creatures. Individual beings who had lives, motives, and interactions with each other. So much of paleontology focuses on fossil animals separate from the world they lived in, and paleontologists are cautious of assuming too much about the activities of creatures they can’t observe in life.

But of course, dinosaurs were once living, breathing animals, and must have communicated not only within their own species, but with other animals, dinosaurian and otherwise, that they shared their ecosystems with. It’s always guesswork to speculate on the behavior and lifestyle of extinct animals, but using what we know about dinosaur biology we can make sure our guesses are fairly grounded in what was, …

In the Footsteps of Giants

It’s a commonly (and incorrectly) held belief that all we’ll ever know about dinosaurs comes from their bones, and that people will never be able to get an understanding of dinosaur behavior and lifestyle. Dinosaurs left many different traces of their existence other than their fossilized skeletons, and one of the coolest has to be their footprints.

Fossilized footprints are known as ichnites to those in the biz, and have been found all over the world. Some of the first known to scientists were found in the northeastern United States in the early 19th century, years before skeletal fossils of dinosaurs had even been recognized and described. Opinions on the maker of these prints ranged from giant birds to biblical monsters, but after good remains of dinosaurs were eventually found in Europe and America, the mystery was solved.

Paleontologists are …

Dinosaurs in the Frost

Dinosaur paleontology is full of apparent contradictions. One of the biggest of these is not only the very presence, but abundance, of these reptiles in and around Polar Regions. For animals long thought to have had metabolisms and bodies ill-suited for bearing the cold of prehistoric winters, the fact that a wide variety of dinosaur types are present in high latitudes has been making paleontologists question what they know about dinosaur biology and the Mesozoic climate for decades now.

Throughout much of the history of paleontology, dinosaurs have largely been found in mostly dry, temperate to tropical areas. This is probably more a reflection of where people spent most of their time looking than an indication of dinosaur distribution, as it’s much easier to look for fossils in places that are warm and dry. But when paleontologists started looking closer …

Your Brachiosaurus Is Not a Brachiosaurus

Brachiosaurus. The towering, graceful, giraffe-like sauropod with its skyward-stretching neck grazing the heavens, representing the peak of dinosaurian spectacle in the Jurassic. While the elongate Diplodocus and chunky Brontosaurus probably make it into dinosaur books to represent sauropods more often, and it hasn’t been considered the biggest dinosaur for several decades now, Brachiosaurus still stands as shining testament to the grandeur of evolution in the hearts of dinosaur fans worldwide. However, the animal you’re likely picturing in your head right now is not Brachiosaurus.

How can this be? Is this one of those Apatosaurus/Brontosaurus or Triceratops/Torosaurus things? Why can’t paleontologists leave our most beloved dinosaurs alone? Well fear not, because Brachiosaurus is still a valid dinosaur, and there’s a good reason as to why the animal you think is Brachiosaurus actually isn’t.

Brachiosaurus was …

The Real Dilophosaurus

Many people are at least vaguely familiar with Dilophosaurus thanks to its bit-part in the first Jurassic Park movie. It was that small-ish, cooing theropod with a pair of crests on its blunt head and that turned out to have a shocking extendible neck-frill and the ability to spit venom like a cobra. A classic scene no doubt, but as is usually the case with movie versions of dinosaurs, the real life animals were actually pretty different. So let’s talk about the real Dilophosaurus.

This dinosaur was first discovered in early Jurassic rocks from Arizona, and described by paleontologist Samuel Welles in 1954 (Welles, 1954). Due to the fragmentary nature of the first specimen’s skull, Welles initially thought the animal was an American species of Megalosaurus, and so named in Megalosaurus wetherilli. Welles later found better skeletal …

A Brief History of Birds

It’s now widely accepted amongst paleontologists that birds are living dinosaurs. This idea is actually not nearly as new as it appears, and was thrown around by paleontologists as far back as the late 19th century. It took a long time to catch on though, over 100 years in fact. Yet for the past decade or so at least, the ‘birds are dinosaurs’ theory has been accepted by all but a few fringe dissenters in the world of paleontology, no matter how much of a debate the media often makes it out to be.

Despite this, there’s still a fair bit of confused information misleading people as to why exactly birds are classified as dinosaurs, and how that relationship works. Hopefully this will make whole things a little clearer. It bears repeating that, while paleontologists are about a certain as …

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