Dinosaurs. They’re endlessly fascinating, aren’t they? But quite a bit of what we think we know about dinosaurs isn’t actually correct. The ‘famous names’ are rarely the biggest, fiercest or heaviest. And many dinos we often see together in films or drawings would never have met in real life.
Here, then, are 10 roarsome facts about dinosaurs that (we hope) will impress children and adults alike, and make you think about the terrible lizards in a new way.
1. Before Jurassic Park, almost all films and books showed the T-Rex in the wrong posture
You may have dinosaur toys that look a little like this:
But, actually, the T-Rex should be more like this:
Notice the difference? The first one stands upright, like it might be about to catch a ball, or serve you tea, or something. The second ‘saur is more horizontal, its gaping maw close to the ground. Scientists now think the latter stance was more usual. It makes sense. That pose would be much better suited for sniffing out and attacking smaller prey. The stooping T-Rex also look more terrifying, a detail Steven Spielberg used to good effect in Jurassic Park. Before that film, almost every depiction of the theropod had it walking upright.
2. Lots of Dinosaurs Aren’t Actually Dinosaurs
We tend to lump all long-dead reptiles under the same label, ‘dinosaurs’, but many are given other designations by scientists. The plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs of the ocean and the pterosaurs of the sky, for example, are not considered dinosaurs. Even some land-dwelling lizards were not true dinos. The well-known dimetrodon -- the one with a sail-like ridge along its back -- certainly looks the part, but lived millions of years before the dinosaurs and is instead classified as a pelycosaur. Readers familiar with the famous Crystal Park ‘dinosaurs’ in London will be surprised to learn that only four of the 30 animals shown are actually dinosaurs.
3. Not All Dinosaurs Lived At The Same Time
Dinosaurs were the dominant land animals between roughly 200 and 66 million years ago. That’s a long span -- 134 million years. By comparison, upright apes have been around for no more than 6 million years, while our own species has enjoyed just 300,000 years or so. That means some of the best-known dinosaurs never met one another. If you ever see a drawing of a stegosaurus squaring up against a T-Rex, then something is very wrong. The former died out some 80 million years before its fearsome cousin evolved. Similarly, the brontosaurus was also long gone by the time Rex might have bothered it.
4. The T-Rex Actually Lived Closer To The Space Age Than The Jurassic Era
Here’s a related fact that’ll change the way you think about dinosaurs. The Jurassic era ended about 145 million years ago. Tyrannosaurus rex did not appear until 68 million years ago. That means -- and I still find this jaw dropping -- the most famous dinosaur lived closer in time to you and me than it did to Jurassic dinosaurs like brontosaurus, diplodocus, pterodactylus and the rest. (As a side note, the film Jurassic Park contains seven species of dinosaur -- only two are properly Jurassic, the rest are from the Cretaceous.)
5. T-Rex Was Not The Largest Predatory Dinosaur
It gets all the publicity, but our friend the T-Rex was by no means the largest of its kind. It was slightly outweighed by the spinosaurus, which roamed the Cretaceous a little earlier than its more famous cousin. This relatively obscure dinosaur did get its 15 minutes of fame in Jurassic Park 3, when it trounced the T-Rex. Other giants like the giganotosaurus and carcharodontosaurus may have been still larger, though the fossil record is too sketchy to be certain.
6. Nor Were Brontosaurus Or Diplodocus The Longest
The so-called sauropod dinosaurs were much, much heavier than T-Rex or any of its line. These plant-eating giants are typified by brontosaurus, which could weigh up to 15 tons and stretch to 22 metres in length. Diplodocus was still larger, reaching up to 24 metres. Both must bow down, though, to argentinosaurus. This staggering creature was probably the heaviest land animal that ever lived. Some estimates put its weight approaching 100 tons, with a length of up to 40 metres -- almost two tennis courts. The beast was only discovered in 1987 (in Argentina, as you may have guessed), and no complete skeleton has yet been found, which probably explains why we haven’t all heard of it.
7. The Tallest Dinosaur Would Tower Over A House
Ever heard of Sauroposeidon? Sounds like a sea monster from a low-budget B-movie. But this was a genuine dinosaur, found in the Gulf of Mexico area around 112 million years ago. Another giant, sauroposeidon had a more upright posture than the animals described in the last section. This meant it could reach an estimated 18 metres off the ground -- the tallest animal that ever lived. That’s three times taller than the largest giraffe, and perhaps twice as tall as a typical house. Of course, no dinosaur ever encountered a house… unless you include the birds who are direct descendants of the dinosaurs.
8. There Were Way More Dinosaurs Than You Can Name
Try to write them all down.I think I can only list out about 20 or so proper dinosaurs, and that includes the ones I already mentioned. Yet this is hardly scratching the surface. Scientists have identified over 1,000 separate species of dinosaur, from the giants we encountered above, down to tiny dino-midges the size of chickens. Thousands of further species no doubt await discovery, given the many millions of years over which the animals thrived. Who knows, for example, what lurks deep beneath Antarctica, beneath land covered by deep ice sheet, but that was in a more temperate zone during the reign of the dinosaurs.
9. The Only Dinosaur Mentioned By Charles Dickens
From chickens to Dickens. The great author slips a dinosaur into the opening lines of Bleak House (1852).
“As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.”
The megalosaurus, superficially similar to a T-Rex, holds a unique distinction among dinosaurs. It was the very first to receive its scientific name, in 1824 -- just 28 years before Dickens immortalised it one of his most famous novels. The animal was superficially similar to a small T-Rex and has so far only been discovered in Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
10. The Word Dinosaur Isn’t All That Old
Until 1842, no child had ever heard of dinosaurs. That’s when the term was coined by the great naturalist Richard Owen. It comes from the Greek for ‘terrible lizard’.
Although originally from the Midlands, and trained as a biochemist, Matt has somehow found himself writing about London for a living. He's a former editor and long-time contributor to Londonist.com and has written several books about the capital. He's also the father of two preschoolers.