Dino-Bites: What did Dinosaurs Really Look Like?

Modern popular culture has long presented the image of dinosaurs as scaly, stomping beasts. Going further back in time to the early to mid 20th century; dinosaurs were thought to be lizard-like with flicking tongues and strange upright postures.

However, modern science has revealed that dinosaurs may have appeared and behaved far different than originally, or even recently, imagined.

As a quick aside: Scientists are not publishing these new discoveries as a way to “ruin childhoods” and to dispel popular depictions of dinosaurs. Science isn’t based on feelings or nostalgia. It’s based on confirming theories and changing those theories when new evidence is discovered.

One of the most common misconceptions of dinosaurs is that they were all scaly. While there were certainly quite a few species that most likely were scaled, there is now conclusive evidence that dozens genera of dinosaurs had feathers or feather-like filaments of some kind on their bodies.

It has been widely known that avian dinosaurs, like Archaeopteryx, were fully feathered. However, new research has revealed that some non-avian dinosaurs had feathers as well.


While only a few specimens have been discovered that definitively had feathers, scientists can use that evidence to conclude that feathers most likely only evolved once in dinosaurs. Therefore it stands to reason that an ancestor dinosaur species must have developed feathers at some point. The other feathered species were all derived from this ancestor. This is called Phylogeny.

They would most likely been a common ancestor of the Ornithoscelida. This group contains theropods like the various Tyrannosaurids, and ornithischians, which included the horned Ceratopsians.

The most conclusive evidence for feathered non-avian dinosaurs comes from the fossilized remains of the small Early-Cretaceous theropod, Sinosauropteryx. A very well-preserved fossil described in 1996 was found with filament like feathers and coloration structures. The feather impressions and coloration imply that the animal had a striped, reddish tail.

Sinosauropteryxfossil image
A Sinosauropteryx fossil with feather ligament impressions and coloration structures.

Other evidence for feathers was actually found in one of the most popular dinosaurs. The small Chinese dromoesaurid, Velociraptor Mongoliensis, more popularly referred to as Velociraptor, has indications of quill knobs in the ulna (upper arm bone) of various specimens. These quill knobs strongly suggest the presence of large, developed feathers.

The functionality of feathers in non-avian dinosaurs is a topic of much debate. They certainly weren’t used for flight. The easiest explanation is that they were used for insulation. While the Earth was warmer, there were still regions and temperature differences, especially in the Cretaceous period. There’s also speculation that they were used for mating displays. They might even have been used for intimidation when confronting rival predators or even larger prey.

Although dinosaur vocalizations aren’t part of their appearance, it bears mentioning. Most depictions show dinosaurs as loud, roaring creatures. The prime example is the famous Tyrannosaurus Rex roar from the Jurassic Park series of films. While that roar is certainly iconic, there’s a lot of evidence that T.Rex most likely didn’t roar. In fact, the current consensus is that it couldn’t have roared if it wanted to.

Roaring is typical in mammals because of the way mammalian vocal chords work. Dinosaurs very likely would have different vocal organs, making them sound more like birds and reptiles.

Dinosaurs most likely used a variety of close-mouth vocalizations. This is seen in nature now with some large flightless birds like cassowaries and ostriches. These booming noises and hisses would certainly have been loud, but they are a far cry from the classical depictions in popular culture.

Recently an extremely well-preserved fossil of the spiky Cretaceous herbivore, Nodosaurus, was found in Alberta, Canada. The specimen was preserved so well that the fine details of its spiky exterior were clearly visible. While it was only the front half of the creature, the fossil almost looks like a professionally sculpted statue.

The preserved Nodosaur specimen discovered in Alberta, Canada, 2011

Discoveries like that allow scientists to paint a vivid picture of the amazing creatures that walked the Earth millions of years ago.

It’s fun to imagine these creatures as monsters, but the truth of the matter is that they were animals. Strange, beautiful, massive animals that have captured the imaginations of millions of people. The mysteries of how they looked will only be solved as time moves on.

(To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Jurassic Park film franchise, we will be posting a series of short (mostly) articles throughout the month about dinosaurs and the world they lived in.

These “Dino-Bites” will be intended to inform and clarify some newer discoveries, and also dispel some falsehoods in film and other media about these ancient creatures.

All of this leading to the launch of Jurassic World Evolution, and the premiere of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.

So keep your battery charged with us as we dive back in time to the age of dinosaurs!)


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