Rewriting the Book on Dinosaurs

Forget what you knew: they weren't necessarily cold-blooded or pea-brained, and may not really be extinct

  • Share
  • Read Later

(2 of 9)

Thanks largely to the explosion of information, dinosaurs are more popular than ever -- if that's possible. In light of the new insights, museums around the world are revamping musty exhibits or installing new ones. They are rearranging the old stilted skeletons on display into new dynamic poses and adding such modern attractions as robotic dinos and interactive computer games. Dinosaur theme parks are booming, while toy stores overflow with stuffed stegosauruses, dinosaur puzzles and models, not to mention the omnipresent videosaurus Barney. And early in June, dino-mania will reach fever pitch with the premiere of Steven Spielberg's long-awaited movie version of the Michael Crichton thriller Jurassic Park. (See following story.)

The rage for dinosaurs is hardly new. The British anatomist Richard Owen first coined the term dinosaur (from the ancient Greek deinos, "terrible," and sauros, "lizard") in 1841 to characterize gigantic fossilized bones found several decades earlier. Dinosaur bones and footprints had actually been known for centuries, but were ascribed to dragons or extinct lizards or even giant ravens. Owen realized that these enormous bones belonged to a previously unknown and long-extinct group of animals related to but different from lizards. Dinosaurs became an immediate rage in London. An 1854 exhibition at Hyde Park's Crystal Palace featured a number of life-size dinosaur models that drew throngs of admirers.

The early dinosaur experts were hampered, however, by a shortage of fossils, and they made egregious mistakes about what the creatures looked like. Owen believed, for example, that Iguanodon, a grazing beast some 30 ft. in length, was built something like a hippopotamus, with a small, sharp horn on its nose. Half a century later, scientists decided the creature was shaped more like a kangaroo and the horn was really a misplaced claw that belonged on its forefoot. Now they think it was probably four-footed after all.

Despite all the fossils unearthed since then, scientists are still working with spotty information. "We probably don't even know 1% of all the species," admits Jack Horner, curator of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana. Yet they have made tremendous progress in understanding how dinosaurs evolved, how they came to dominate the world for an incomprehensibly long 165 million years (humans, by contrast, have been around fewer than 4 million), how they lived and behaved, and how they finally passed into history.


During the Triassic period -- say, 225 million years ago -- it would have seemed absurd to suggest that dinosaurs would soon inherit the earth. At the time, they were inconsequential creatures, perhaps the size of dogs, living among far more imposing giant crocodiles and other reptiles. During Triassic times, the continents were stuck together in a single mass that scientists call Pangaea. The planet was warmer and rainier than it is today -- ideal conditions for the growth of vast forests along coastlines and adjacent to rivers. Conifers, horsetails, tree ferns and ginkgos were the dominant vegetation. Giant 3-ft. dragonflies whirred through the air, and 18-in. cockroaches scuttled along the forest floor. The seas teemed with mollusks, algae and large marine reptiles.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6
  7. 7
  8. 8
  9. 9