If we were to list the number of false claims out there about dinosaurs, it’d be never-ending. From the belief that they only inhabited warm habitats (they also lived in frozen areas), that they were all enormous (there were also very small dinosaurs), to the misconception that their size was influenced by a difference in the strength of gravity in this era (which was exactly the same as it is today). Science fiction in cinema and literature has left us with an unrealistic image of how they were. In this article I will try to outline the most common false beliefs about these prehistoric animals.
Are dinosaurs extinct? Were they wiped out by a meteorite?
If we think about the extinction of the dinosaurs, what comes to mind is a big meteorite. The truth is that there are several theories of how the climatic conditions of the Earth changed rapidly, leading to the gradual disappearance of species that were unable to adapt. The drop in volcanic activity and the resulting changes in the atmosphere, the appearance of tetrapods that occupied dinosaurs’ ecological niche, the proliferation of smaller species and the famous meteorite that impacted the Yucatan peninsula are the best known. We assume that the dinosaurs began to disappear due to their inability to adapt to these changes, but not all of their species suffered the same fate.
Most palaeontologists argue that birds should, in fact, be considered dinosaurs. They descendants of those species that managed to survive the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event. Accordingly, we can say that birds are avian dinosaurs, and it’s non-avian dinosaurs that are extinct.
Did they live alongside the mammals? And humans?
Typically, we tends to think that dinosaurs roamed the earth all at the same time. The Mesozoic Era (from 251 to 65 million years ago) is divided into three time periods: Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous. During these periods dinosaurs were our planet’s most dominant terrestrial vertebrates. As they evolved and changed, many of their species never actually coexisted.
Mammals also existed during this period. Fossils of species such as the Megaconus have been found, which date back to 165 million years ago. They were extremely small animals, most likely nocturnal, and contrary to another common myth, they did not feed on dinosaur eggs. Australopithecus, mankind’s first ancestor, appeared 3.9 million years ago, much later in time.
Were there marine and flying dinosaurs? Were they at the top of the food chain?
Although there were other types of reptiles with similar characteristics to dinosaurs, they belonged to other families. Flying reptiles (pterosaurus) and marine reptiles (plesiosaurs, pliosaurs, ichthyosaurs, etc.) were animals that coexisted with dinosaurs and came to same end as them, but with their own distinct characteristics.
Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of dinosaurs were actually prey to these other species. Certainly, larger dinosaurs such as the Tyrannosaurus Rex or the Giganotosaurus, were at the top of the chain. However, they preferred feeding on carcasses and carrion as opposed to hunting for themselves.
Did dinosaurs have scales or feathers? Were they cold or warm blooded? What colour were they?
In 1997, the first evidence of a feathered dinosaur was discovery, that of Sinosauropteryx. Today we know that some species had feathers and other did not, depending on their adaptation. Therefore, the image we have of the Velociraptor or T-Rex may be way off. As for blood temperature, according to recent studies, these animals were not cold-blooded like current reptiles (ectotherms), nor were they warm-blooded like mammals (endothermic). They were somewhere between the two, like sharks, turtles or tuna (mesotherms).
With regards to colour, remains of various colours of melanin have been found in fossils (white, black and red). This indicates that these animals were not the greenish, earthy colour we imagine them to be. Instead, they would have been a range of colours, probably with different markings, such as stripes, patches and other patterns.
Myths about T-Rex, Velociraptor and Brontosaurus.
Films like Jurassic Park have created an image of what we think a dinosaur should look like. However, this is science fiction and the fiction sometimes overshadows the science.
The Tyrannosaurus Rex, for example, didn’t need something to be moving in order to see it. While their sense of smell was certainly superior to their eyesight, they could still see their prey, however still. Nor did they have such small, useless front legs as they are usually depicted. Although they were small, they had very strong muscles, which helped them tear into flesh and keep hold of it. Another myth about this enormous carnivore is that it was the largest. In fact, the Spinosaurus significantly larger. And if we consider other families, the Liopleurodon is the out-and-out winner as the largest carnivore.
As for the Velociraptor, the main mistake – again a result of cinematographic embellishment – is its size. These creatures were the height of a turkey and, indeed, were covered in feathers. Not really the fearsome appearance Spielberg was looking for!
Another example is that of the famous Brontosaurus. There is some debate over whether they ever actually existed. Despite being a very popular species, it seems to have been a case of mistaken identity: the body of Apatosaurus with the head of a Camarasaurus.
Will we ever be able to clone dinosaurs?
To be able to clone a living organism, you need to extract the entire DNA from its cells and have an empty egg, into which strands of the DNA can be inserted and developed. The problem is that DNA starts to decompose as soon as the animal dies, after which it’s impossible to use. No dinosaur blood sample has never been found and, even if we did, we would still need a species capable of fertilising the egg and gestating the embryo. It’s simply impossible.
The bottom line is that we’ll probably never be able to clone a dinosaur. We can’t clone a mammoth, extinct a mere 5,700 years ago, so how could we clone an animal that disappeared millions of years ago?