Everyone loves dinosaurs, from the young to the young at heart. What’s not to love about these prehistoric reptiles who stomped all over the Earth for hundreds of millions of years?
As dinosaurs are a popular topic, there’s a lot of dino info out there…and not all of it is accurate. But don’t worry – Safari Ltd is here to set the record straight about some common misconceptions about these “terrible lizards”. First and foremost, while “dinosaur” means “terrible lizard”, they weren’t actually lizards at all. They were archosaurs, a group of reptiles that includes dinosaurs, crocodiles and their relatives, flying pterosaurs, and modern-day birds. As to whether or not they were terrible, well…that’s a matter of opinion, but we think they’re awesome!
Let’s get right into the myth busting. We’ll start with an easy one…
10. Dinosaurs Weren’t Slow, Sluggish Tail-draggers.
This myth has largely been dispelled, but it wasn’t too long ago that people still believed dinosaurs to be lumbering, slow-moving beasts, dragging their tails along the ground as they stomped slowly along. It was generally thought for a long time that dinosaurs were cold-blooded, meaning they rely on outside sources to maintain their body heat. Warm-blooded animals, on the other hand, maintain a constant body temperature. Today’s reptiles are cold-blooded, so it was assumed that dinosaurs were, too. When it’s cold, the body processes of cold-blooded animals slow down, making them more sluggish and less active.
It is now almost universally believed that dinosaurs were warm-blooded, like mammals and birds (more on our feathered friends in a bit). This means that they could be quick and active in different environments with different temperatures.
Tail-dragging is also something that was attributed to dinosaurs based on modern-day reptiles. Most reptiles today – think lizards, crocodiles, etc. – drag their tails along the ground, so why wouldn’t dinosaurs do the same? Well, the truth is the bone structure and muscles of dinosaur tails suggest they were held upright. Additionally, fossilized dinosaur tracks feature plenty of footprints, but no indentation left from a dragging tail, which would seem to be pretty solid evidence that those tails were held high and proud!
9. Dimetrodon was NOT a Dinosaur!
Dimetrodon is a very popular prehistoric creature, due to the distinctive sail that ran down its back. To the untrained eye, it certainly LOOKS like a dinosaur, and it often gets lumped in with dinosaurs. But it’s not really a dinosaur at all.
Dimetrodon was a synapsid, a group of prehistoric reptiles that were characterized by having one single opening behind each eye socket in their skull. Dinosaurs are diapsids, which have two holes behind each eye. Synapsids would eventually evolve into mammals, which means Dimetrodon has more in common with you and me than it does with dinosaurs.
|A couple of Dimetrodons.|
If you don’t have a Dimetrodon skull handy, you can still tell that Dimetrodon is not a dinosaur by the way it carries itself. Dinosaurs held their legs erect below their bodies, and Dimetrodon’s limbs are more splayed out to the side, like a crocodile.
Dimetrodon also lived during the Permian Period, some 275 million years ago. The first true dinosaurs wouldn’t show up until the Late Triassic Period, almost 40 million years later.
8. Parasaurolophus Did NOT Breathe Fire.
This isn’t the most popular dino-myth out there, but it’s so quirky we decided to include it anyway. A biochemist named Duane T. Gish proposed this, despite not being trained as a paleontologist.
Parasaurolophus was a hadrosaur, or duck-billed dinosaur, a large plant-eater from the Cretaceous Period, known for its large, hollow crest. Now, scientists aren’t exactly sure what this crest was for, but there are many theories. Some, like the theory it was used as a snorkel, have been mostly rejected. Other scientists believe it amplified the dinosaur’s call, letting it echo out far and wide. Still others believe it was used for display, to attract potential mates.
|Some Parasaurolophus taking a dip.|
One thing it certainly did not do was shoot flames like a mythical dragon. Gish proposed that Parasaurolophus could combine a mixture of chemicals in its crest to create a flaming concoction that would be breathed through its nose, similar to an insect called the bombardier beetle which sprays a stream of harsh chemicals from its body when threatened. However, there is no evidence to suggest that Parasaurolophus could do any such thing. Gish was attempting to find a real-life animal that could fit the description of the creature known as Leviathan from the Bible, and thought that a fire-breathing Parasaurolophus would fit the bill. Scientific evidence suggests otherwise.
7. Tyrannosaurus Rex was NOT a Scavenger.
A few years ago, the idea was floated that the most iconic predatory dinosaur of all time, Tyrannosaurus rex, was actually a scavenger that didn’t hunt at all and sadly did not live up to its reputation as one of the most ferocious predators to ever walk the Earth.
|T. rex (in both feathered and unfeathered flavors).|
While this idea got a lot of coverage at the time, likely due to the controversial nature of such a statement, there have been a number of studies since that refute the claim, so rest easy knowing that T. rex was just as scary as you always thought it was, though it may have been a bit…fluffier (more on that later).
6. Stegosaurus Did NOT Have Two Brains.
One myth that seems very hard to put to rest is the idea that Stegosaurus had such a small brain that it needed a second brain back near its legs to control the back half of its body. While this myth was disproven over a hundred years ago, it still finds its way into books, TV shows, and other misleading media.
|Stegosaurus, showing off its impressive plates (and singular brain).|
Stegosaurus, the popular Jurassic plant-eater with a spiked tail and large plates running down its back, probably wouldn’t win any intelligence contests. That much is true. However, the brain in its head worked just fine to control its entire body, and it definitely did not have or need a “second brain”. What it did have was a large ball of nerves that very early paleontologists mistook for a second brain. This nerve cluster is common in many other vertebrate animals, including other dinosaurs, and even humans!
5. Dinosaurs Didn’t Grow So Big Because of Prehistoric Gravity.
This is a particularly weird one. A theory floated by some, including former baseball player Jose Canseco of all people, posits that dinosaurs could only grow as big as they did because of ancient gravity. Gravity is the force that pulls objects toward the Earth, and it’s what keeps us all from floating off into space. The idea is that in the time of the dinosaurs, gravity was much weaker than today, allowing for gigantic beasts like Brachiosaurus and Diplodocus that don’t exist in the modern world, because today’s gravity could not support such massive creatures.
The truth is, there’s nothing that leads scientists to believe that gravity in the Mesozoic Era – when dinosaurs ruled the Earth – was any different than gravity today. How did giant dinosaurs like sauropods get so big? Well, they had some biological factors that helped, for example a series of air sacs that helped them support such long necks. But it also has to do with their reproduction.
|The long-necked Malawisaurus.|
Today, our largest animals are mostly mammals, like elephants. They grow quite large, but nowhere near as long as the biggest sauropod, which could be well over 100 feet in length. Why don’t elephants grow even bigger? Well, mammals have a vastly different reproductive strategy than reptiles.
Large mammals usually give birth to one or two babies at a time, and those babies need a lot of care and protection from their parents to grow and develop. This takes a lot of energy. Reptiles do it differently. They typically lay a large number of eggs, and the young are pretty much on their own by the time they hatch. They’re left to fend for themselves, with the belief that the more eggs laid, the more chances at least one hatchling will live to see adulthood. Mammals focus on quality, devoting their attention and resources to a smaller number of offspring, while reptiles prefer quantity – lay as many eggs as you can and hope a few of them make it.
The energy it takes to raise a large mammal comes at a cost. The drain on the parents puts a limit on how much they can grow. To grow any bigger, parents would have to devote even more time to carrying their young and caring for them after birth. Reptiles, like sauropod dinosaurs, are hatched fully developed, and grow rapidly as they learn quickly to fend for themselves or die. This is sad for the baby sauropods, but it lets the adults save energy that would be spent raising their young, and allows them to continue growing and growing to gargantuan sizes.
4. Dinosaurs Didn’t Live in the Sea.
This one is a bit tricky, because there are some exceptions, but by and large – if a prehistoric creature lived its whole life in the water, it was not a dinosaur.
This means that marine reptiles like Tylosaurus, Elasmosaurus, and Kronosaurus weren’t dinosaurs. It’s a common practice to lump any large prehistoric reptiles together as “dinosaurs”, but these sea-dwelling reptiles weren’t closely related to dinos.
|Tylosaurus (NOT a dinosaur).|
In the case of the mosasaurs like Tylosaurus, they’re believed to be very large lizards, closely related to monitor lizards, like today’s Komodo dragon. Plesiosaurs like Kronosaurus and Elasmosaurus, meanwhile, have a more mysterious evolutionary history, but some scientists believe they may be closely related to turtles.
There were some dinosaurs, like Spinosaurus, that had unique adaptations that suited a life spent in and around the water. But, while Spinosaurus may have been a decent swimmer, it could still move around on dry land, and it had fully developed limbs with fingers and toes, rather than the paddle-like flippers found in sea-dwelling prehistoric reptiles.
It should also be noted that for a while, it was believed long-necked sauropods like Apatosaurus and Brachiosaurus had to spend most of their time in the water, as their bodies were too heavy to be supported on land. This isn’t true, however; these great beasts are now known to be 100% land-dwelling.
3. Dinosaurs Also Didn’t Fly the Prehistoric Skies.
Again, this one can be a bit tricky due to some notable exceptions we’ll get to later in the blog, but if a prehistoric reptile flew through the air, it was likely NOT a dinosaur.
The only prehistoric reptiles known to be capable of true flight were the pterosaurs. You may be familiar with them – Pteranodon, Quetzalcoatlus, Dimorphodon, and others. Most people tend to call them “pterodactyls”, although there really was no animal by that name. There was a small pterosaur called Pterodactylus, but it didn’t look much like what people picture when they think of pterosaurs. What they usually envision looks more like Pteranodon.
|Pteranodon, a flying reptile (pictured on the ground).|
These pterosaurs had long extended pinky fingers on their hands that supported leathery membranes that stretched along their body, forming wings that pterosaurs could use to soar through the skies. They also had hollow bones, like birds, making them light enough to stay airborne. They were archosaurs, meaning they were distantly related to dinosaurs, but they weren’t actual dinos.
There were some dinosaurs that were capable of at least gliding from tree to tree over short distances. Archaeopteryx, for example, was a dinosaur covered in feathers that made it resemble an ancient bird. It was long assumed that Archaeopteryx used its wings to glide, and was not capable of true flight, since it lacked the powerful chest muscles and large breastbone found in most of the flying vertebrates of today. However, some scientists have proposed that Archaeopteryx could actually fly, just in a different way than modern birds do.
But dinosaurs like Archaeopteryx were the exception, not the rule, at least when it came to the idea of dinosaur flight.
2. Dinosaurs Weren’t All Scaly.
However, Archaeopteryx may not have been such an exception when it came to its feathers. We often think of dinosaurs as scaly beasts (they are reptiles after all), but more and more evidence is coming to light that shows that many dinosaurs actually sported feathers, like birds.
Now, we do have skin impressions from certain dinosaurs that shows definitively that they possessed scales. However, we also have preserved evidence of feathers, and Archaeopteryx is just the tip of the iceberg. Velociraptor, long thought to be a scaly dinosaur, is now known to have been covered in feathers. Microraptor, another feathered dinosaur, sported wing-like feathers not just on its arms, but on its legs as well.
|Velociraptor in all its feathered glory.|
This fluffiness extends beyond small dinosaurs, and may even include some of the heavy hitters of the dino world. A dinosaur called Yutyrannus was discovered that sported a covering of fine feathers. Previously, it was thought that feathers were only found in smaller dinosaurs, but Yutyrannus showed that a creature over 30 feet long could still sport some surprising fluff. Yutyrannus was also an ancestor of the iconic Tyrannosaurus rex, which has raised speculation that perhaps even the popular Tyrant Lizard King was more feathery than initially believed.
We do have evidence that T. rex had scales on at least some parts of its body, but that doesn’t mean it totally lacked feathers. They could have existed on parts of its body we don’t yet have any impressions of, or simply not been preserved during fossilization. Or it’s possible that younger T. rexes sported feathers, and lost them as they grew older. Either way, it’s fascinating to think that what we once thought of as great scaly lumbering beasts were actually quick, active, feathered creatures, like giant birds.
1. Dinosaurs Didn’t Actually Go Extinct.
Around 65 million years ago, an asteroid struck the planet, and its impact was believed to cause a chain reaction that eliminated a large chunk of life on Earth. As everyone knows, this included the dinosaurs, right?
Well, yes…most of them. But not all! Remember when we said dinosaurs were like giant birds? Well, it goes further than that…they actually were giant birds! Or rather, the ancestors of birds. And today’s birds are actually dinosaurs! Every feathered friend you see on trees, power lines, and streetlights…every bird singing its song and twirling through the sky today, from the tiniest hummingbird to the biggest ostrich…is a real live, breathing dinosaur!
|Pictured: A whole bunch of dinosaurs!|
Scientists are pretty much in agreement that theropod dinosaurs (meat eaters like T. rex and Velociraptor) didn’t completely die off at the end of the Cretaceous Period, and some continued to evolve into toothless creatures capable of flight (though some birds, like ostriches and penguins, would later lose that ability).
That means birds are actually a sub-class of reptiles, rather than their own class of animals as previously thought. It also means you can very likely go outside right now and see wild dinosaurs! How cool is that?
It also means that, technically, one commonly held belief that was thought to be a myth is actually true – dinosaurs and cavemen did, in fact, co-exist. It was long believed that dinosaurs died 65 million years before the first humans showed up. But since dinosaurs are birds, it means that dinosaurs were indeed flying around during the times of the first humans!