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10 Ways to See the Dinosaur in a Bird

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Forget everything you’ve heard about dinosaurs dying out 66 million years ago. That’s not true. 

Even though the era of dinosaurian dominance came to a catastrophic end—punctuated by climate change, massive volcanic outpouring, and an asteroid strike—one lineage of the “terrible lizards” survived while all the others perished.

Birds, after over 84 million years of coexistence alongside their weird and wonderful relatives, persisted through the devastation and thrived in the aftermath, proliferating into over 10,000 species alive today. Every avian—from penguin to pigeon—are dinosaurs that carry on the legacy of their Mesozoic forerunners, and here’s a list of ten traits that will help you see the dinosaur alive in every bird.

1. The Cloaca

Let’s get this one out of the way. Given the organ’s presence in birds (living dinosaurs) and crocodylians (the closest living cousins of all dinosaurs), paleontologists know that all non-avian dinosaurs had a cloaca. This orifice is the single spot where the excretory, urinary, and reproductive tracts end. More than that, paleontologists expect that male dinosaurs had an “intromittent organ” to assist in their nuptials, just as ducks and ostriches do. 

2. Eggs

The way dinosaurs reproduce solves the “chicken and the egg” puzzle. Just like birds, all non-avian dinosaurs—from Albertosaurus to Zalmoxes—started life by hatching out of eggs. The eggs were relatively small compared to their parents. Giants such as the 110-foot-long, 45 ton Supersaurus emerged from eggs no bigger than a soccer ball.

3. Parental Care

Some dinosaur parents were as attentive as modern birds. Multiple specimens of the parrot-like Citipati, for example, have been found brooding over their eggs just the way expectant avians do today, and the anatomy of baby Maiasaura hint that they waited for their shovel-beaked parents to bring them food. Likewise, a find of the small herbivorous dinosaur Oryctodromeus revealed an adult and two juvenile dinosaurs hunkered down in the same burrow, a sign that the teenagers hadn’t yet left home.

4. Feathers

Baby birds share another connection with their extinct relatives: Paleontologists have found dozens of dinosaurs preserved with fluff that would have made them look like chicks with teeth and claws. And that’s not to mention dinosaurs, such as Velociraptor, that sported even more advanced plumage. Feathers were not an evolutionary innovation unique to birds—feathers and their precursors were a widespread dinosaur feature that evolved for insulation and display before being co-opted for flight.

5. Colors

Fossil feathers preserve microscopic structures called melanosomes. The size, density, and arrangement of these structures create colors that can be reconstructed. As it turns out, the little raptor Anchiornis was patterned black and white with a splash of red—like a flashy magpie—and the quad-winged Microraptor had a raven’s iridescent sheen. Paleontologists may eventually find even more gaudy dinosaurs, but the feathered dinosaurs studied so far would have looked strangely familiar.

6. Air sacs

Naturalists used to think that birds were unique in having a series of air sacs spreading from their respiratory system. These made their skeletons lighter and made birds more efficient breathers. But, hipsters that they were, non-avian dinosaurs were into air sacs first. The long-necked sauropods—think Apatosaurus—and theropods like Tyrannosaurus benefitted from these billowy organs, and these “pneumatic structures” may be part of the secret as to how dinosaurs got to be so huge.

7. Feet

In the early 19th century, a New England naturalist named Edward Hitchcock thought he had found the fossilized tracks of giant birds. He wasn’t that far off. The three-toed tracks were left by non-avian dinosaurs during around 190 million years ago, and even as birds evolved they kept the scaly, three-toed feet of their ancestors. The next time you see a quail or sparrow, look at their feet and tell me there's not something Allosaurus-like about them.

8. Wings

The next time you tear through Buffalo wings, take a look at the bones. The fused fingers and hands folded against those arm bones aren’t all that different from the clawed arms of Deinonychus and similar dinosaurs. And rather than facing the ground, these hands faced palms inward. The lesson is simple—the next time you do a Velociraptor impression, fold your arms like a chicken and snarl.

9. Wishbone

If you ever got the chance to carve up a Tyrannosaurus, you’d find a very familiar bone underneath the dinosaur’s breast meat. Like many other theropod dinosaurs, Tyrannosaurus had a V-shaped wishbone. In paleontological circles, though, breaking a fossil wishbone is not considered good luck.

10. Teeth

Wikimedia Commons

Birds didn’t always have beaks. The earliest avians retained the teeth of their raptor-like ancestors, and even today birds retain the genetic remnants of a sharp bite. It’s just a matter of giving them the proper genetic cues to express teeth anew. This will either make Jurassic Park a reality or give KFC a “dinochicken” gimmick.

All images courtesy of iStock unless otherwise noted. 

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Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment, Inc. and Legendary Pictures Productions, LLC.
16 Prehistoric Creatures You’ll See In Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
Chris Pratt meets the vicious T. rex in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)
Chris Pratt meets the vicious T. rex in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018)
Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment, Inc. and Legendary Pictures Productions, LLC.

The sequel to 2015’s Jurassic World ups the ante with a huge roster of dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and marine reptiles. While some are familiar favorites (see: T. rex), others have never been seen in a major motion picture before. Pull off your nostalgia goggles and let’s take a look at what modern science has to say about the long-gone animals of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.

1. TYRANNOSAURUS

Lived: 68 to 66 million years ago in North America

Diet: Carnivore

Maximum Length: 40 feet

Name Means: “Tyrant lizard”

Apparently, the most popular dinosaur of all time wasn’t above cannibalism: Multiple Tyrannosaurus rex bones have bite marks on them that match the teeth of other tyrannosaurid species. Debate has arisen over the issue of T. rex plumage. University of Alberta paleontologist Scott Persons recently compared tiny skin impressions left behind by Tyrannosaurus and its close cousins Gorgosaurus, Daspletosaurus, and Tarbosaurus. These reveal that the dinos had pebbly scales, but the samples contain no evidence of feathers. Keep in mind though that the skin impressions only represent small patches of the dinosaurs’ tails, necks, abdomens, and pelvises—so Tyrannosaurus might’ve had feathers elsewhere on its body. For the record, Persons thinks the giant carnivore would still look “pretty cool and plenty scary” with a little fuzz. “[Nobody] ever complained that tigers weren’t scary, and they’re fluffy,” he said.

2. APATOSAURUS

Artistic interpretation of an individual of A. louisae arching its neck down to drink
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Lived: 155 to 150 million years ago in North America

Diet: Herbivore.

Maximum length: 80 feet

Name means: “Deceptive lizard”

In 1879, an unidentified sauropod (a long-necked dinosaur) was found in Wyoming. At first, this creature was given the name Brontosaurus excelsus but in 1903, paleontologist Elmer Riggs rechristened it as Apatosaurus excelsus (the Apatosaurus had been described before the Brontosaurus, so the name had precedence). A few scientists now think the Brontosaurus and Apatosarus actually are distinct and the much better-known name ought to be reinstated for that particular group, but others disagree. Regardless, Apatosaurus was pretty awesome. Some of its bones were pneumatic and the body contained a number of air sacs. Such traits would’ve made the big plant-eater very lightweight for an animal of its size. Apatosaurus may have also been able to break the sound barrier by cracking its sinuous tail like a bullwhip.

3. TRICERATOPS

Lived: 68 to 66 million years ago in North America

Diet: Herbivore

Maximum length: 29 feet

Name means: “Three-horned face”

Give credit where it’s due: Look at the baby Triceratops in Fallen Kingdom and you may notice that the horns above its eyes curve backward ever so slightly. This is scientifically accurate. The brow horns of Triceratops newborns were tiny bumps which bent backward during the adolescent years. Then they changed course and bowed forward while the animals matured. Puncture wounds and lesions on the skulls of adult Triceratops tell us these animals locked horns in head-to-head combat. Triceratops was constantly replacing its teeth, which were arranged in tight clusters and most likely used to shear through fibrous vegetation.

4. SINOCERATOPS

Lived: 75 to 66 million years ago in China

Diet: Herbivore

Maximum length: 19 feet

Name means: “Chinese horned face”

A newcomer to the Jurassic Park films, Sinoceratops first came to light during a 2008 fossil-hunting excursion into China’s Shandong Province. It belongs to the same family as Triceratops and was the first member of this group to be found in Chinese rock. Small, forward-bending horns lined the top of its frill, which was proportionally smaller than that of Triceratops. A single cone-shaped horn sat over the nostrils.

5. ALLOSAURUS

Lived: 155.7 to 150 million years ago in North America and Portugal and possibly elsewhere

Diet: Carnivore

Maximum length: 28 (or possibly 35) feet

Name means: “Different lizard”

In one of the trailers for Fallen Kingdom, a running Allosaurus falls flat on its face. The dinosaur was no stranger to injury in real life. Cracked ribs, broken arms, and badly-infected toes are just a few of the medical maladies that Allosaurus skeletons have been preserved with. Selected as Utah’s official state fossil in 1988, Allosaurus is one of the most commonly found predatory dinos in the American west. Strong neck muscles may have allowed the carnivore to disembowel prey by pulling its head backward in a falcon-esque tugging motion. And here’s something we’d really like to see on the silver screen: According to a 2015 study, Allosaurus could possibly open its jaws at a nightmarish 92-degree angle.

6. MOSASAURUS

Lived: 70 to 66 million years ago in Europe and North America

Diet: Carnivore

Maximum length: 56 feet

Name means: “Lizard of the Meuse River” (It was first discovered along this European river in 1764.)

Mosasaurus wasn’t a dinosaur; it’s more closely related to snakes and monitor lizards than it is to any of the other creatures you’ll read about here. Both Jurassic World flicks show the marine reptile leaping high out of the water to snag unwary prey. According to mosasaur expert Michael J. Everhart though, these animals didn’t have the tail strength or speed to pull off such an athletic feat. Mosasaurus is the most famous member (and the namesake genus) of the mosasaur superfamily. Late in the age of dinosaurs, these were some of the ocean’s major predators. They probably swam like gigantic crocodiles, keeping their flippers pressed against the body. Fossil evidence tells us that mosasaurs gave birth to live young at sea and at least some of them had vertically-fluked tails.

7. PTERANODON

Lived: 88 to 80.5 million years ago in central North America

Diet: Carnivore (probable fishing specialist)

Maximum wingspan: 20 feet (or possibly 24 feet)

Name means: “Toothless wing”

Here’s another non-dinosaur for you. Good old Pteranodon was a kind of North American pterosaur. What’s that, you ask? Pterosaurs were flying reptiles that patrolled the skies from 228 to 66 million years ago. Long before birds or bats took to the air, pterosaurs became the first vertebrate animals to ever achieve powered flight. The good people of Kansas designated Pteranodon itself as one of their official state fossils in 2014. Back in this animal’s heyday, there was a vast inland sea which covered most of the Great Plains, splitting North America in two. Pteranodon may have behaved like a modern albatross, using its narrow wings to soar for vast distances on air currents above the ocean waves. The creatures were apparently keen on seafood: Pteranodon skeletons are sometimes found with masses of fish bones in their throats and stomachs. We may never know how they captured prey, but one idea can be dismissed outright: Not a single known pterosaur had opposable toes, so Pteranodon couldn’t have grabbed things with its feet like the genetically-engineered flyers in Jurassic World do.

8. CARNOTAURUS

Bryce Dallas Howard and Justice Smith are trapped by the Carnotaurus in 'Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom' (2018)
Universal Studios and Amblin Entertainment, Inc. and Legendary Pictures Productions, LLC.

Lived: 72 to 69 million years ago in Argentina

Diet: Carnivore

Maximum length: 25 feet

Name means: “Meat-eating bull"

Carnotaurus didn’t show up in the first four Jurassic Park movies, but Michael Crichton wrote the horned creature into his 1995 novel The Lost World. The book depicts Carnotaurus as a nocturnal hunter that can change colors like an overgrown cuttlefish. There’s no reason to put any stock in this idea, but the real Carnotaurus was not without its quirky attributes—including its forelimbs. While T. rex gets a lot of flack for its meager arms, those of Carnotaurus are proportionately smaller, and the Argentine dino didn’t even have any wrist bones. On the flip side, Carnotaurus’s strong legs and powerful tail would’ve made it a gifted sprinter. Skin impressions reveal that its back, neck, and tail were studded with bony knobs, much like the ones Carnotaurus shows off in Fallen Kingdom.

9. GALLIMIMUS

Lived: 70 million years ago in Mongolia

Diet: Probable omnivore

Maximum length: 20 feet

Name means: “Chicken mimic”

Gallimimus belongs to an ostrich-like family of dinosaurs known as the ornithomimids. Though it lacks plumage in the Jurassic movies, real ornithomimids were covered in fuzzy down as youngsters and the adults grew long feathers on their arms. Gallimimus and its brethren couldn’t fly, but their showy, wing-like forelimbs could’ve been used to help them attract mates. Ornithomimids compensated for their lack of teeth by swallowing rocks, which ground up food in the stomach. Exactly what they ate is unclear, though most paleontologists think the ostrich mimics were either omnivorous or herbivorous.

10. BRACHIOSAURUS

Lived: 155 to 140 million years ago in North America

Diet: Herbivore

Maximum length: 72 feet

Name means: “Arm lizard”

Even though it’s poorly represented in the fossil record, Brachiosaurus is well-known to the general public. This is largely due to its breakout role in the first Jurassic Park movie. The Brachiosaurus in that classic film hold their elongated necks in an almost vertical position, and this depiction might not be too far off. A 2010 biomechanical analysis argued that browsing on treetops would’ve been a more energy-efficient option for Brachiosaurus-like sauropods than holding their necks horizontally and eating ground-level plants. It’s interesting to think about the behemoth’s cardiovascular system: In order to pump blood up that lengthy neck and into the head, Brachiosaurus may have required a gigantic heart weighing in the neighborhood of 880 pounds.

11. ANKYLOSAURUS

Lived: 68 to 66 million years ago in North America

Diet: Herbivore

Maximum length: 21 feet

Name means: “Curved lizard”

We know this formidable animal had a backside covered in bony plates; yet because no one’s ever found a complete Ankylosaurus skeleton, scientists disagree about how the armor was arranged. The 19-inch-wide club on its tail was probably a weapon. Using CT scans and anatomical measurements, a Canadian research team estimated that a large Ankylosaurus club could strike its target with enough force to break bones. Evolution made some of the tail vertebrae in these dinosaurs stiff and inflexible so they could support their heavy clubs. A hammer needs its handle after all.

12. STYGIMOLOCH

Lived: 68 to 66 million years ago in North America

Diet: Probable herbivore

Maximum length: 10 feet

Name means: “Styx devil”

It’s kind of ironic that Stygimoloch is mentioned by name in Fallen Kingdom’s promo videos. Paleontologist John R. “Jack” Horner has worked as a consultant for all five Jurassic Park films. He thinks that Stygimoloch is nothing more than the juvenile version of the thick-headed dinosaur Pachycephalosaurus, which lived at the same time and place. (You may remember the latter’s cameo in 1997's The Lost World: Jurassic Park.) This would render the name Stygimoloch invalid. Horner’s argument is supported by the trademark feature of both dinos: the iconic domes on the top of their craniums. Stygimoloch’s skull bones were not fully fused together, suggesting the animal had a lot of growing to do. CT scans have also shown that Stygimoloch’s dome was significantly thinner than that of Pachycephalosaurus. Perhaps these dinos used their special skulls to flank each other—or maybe the thick noggins were designed for heavy-duty headbutts. For his part, Horner has proposed that these were used for identification.

13. STEGOSAURUS

Mounted skeleton of Stegosaurus stenops in right lateral view at the Natural History Museum, London.
Susannah Maidment et al. & Natural History Museum, London, CC BY 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Lived: 155 to 150 million years ago in North America and Portugal

Diet: Herbivore

Maximum length: 23 feet

Name means: “Roof lizard”

Nobody knows what to make of the bony plates on Stegosaurus’s back. If self-defense was their purpose, why do they project upward from the spine, leaving the flanks of this vegetarian wide open? And why do the plates of other spiky-tailed dinosaurs in its family have radically different shapes? One hypothesis is that these bizarre accessories were used to attract mates—much like the peacock’s gaudy tail feathers. Maybe they also helped the small-headed herbivores recognize other members of their own kind from afar. The quartet of spikes on Stegosaurus’s tail were almost certainly used to ward off attackers. Live Stegosaurus got plenty of mileage out of these weapons: One survey, which compared 51 individual spikes, reported that just under 10 percent had been broken and re-healed at the tip.

14. COMPSOGNATHUS

Lived: 150 million years ago in Germany and France

Diet: Carnivore

Maximum length: Four feet

Name means: “Elegant jaw”

Only two skeletons of this dinosaur have ever been discovered, both of which were found with the remains of tiny lizards tucked inside their rib cages. That’s a pretty far cry from the scene in The Lost World: Jurassic Park where a swarm of “Compies” gobble up the man who’s been tormenting them with a cattle prod. But we digress. Named in 1859, Compsognathus used to be the smallest type of non-avian dinosaur known to science. It no longer retains this title, as the creature would’ve dwarfed some more recently-discovered dinos like the 15-inch Mongolian Parvicursor.

15. BARYONYX

Bryce Dallas Howard and Justice Smith encounter the Baryonyx in 'Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom' (2018)
Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment, Inc. and Legendary Pictures Productions, LLC.

Lived: 130-125 million years ago in England, Spain, and Portugal

Diet: Carnivore

Maximum length: 25 feet

Name means: “Heavy claw”

Sail-backed Spinosaurus was the main villain in 2001's Jurassic Park III—a casting choice that irked plenty of fans. Baryonyx was a close relative of this beast who now joins Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom’s Mesozoic ensemble. Preserved stomach contents have shown that Baryonyx ate fish as well as the herbivorous dinosaur Iguanodon. On each hand, Baryonyx had a 12-inch hooked claw that served an unknown purpose. (Artists like to imagine it as a fishing tool.) The animal’s conical teeth look well-equipped for grabbing hold of slippery prey. Despite the narrowness of its snout, Baryonyx’s jaws were able to withstand a great deal of bending and torsion.

16. VELOCIRAPTOR

Chris Pratt with a baby Velociraptor in 'Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom' (2018)
Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment, Inc. and Legendary Pictures Productions, LLC.

Lived: 85 to 70 million years ago in Mongolia and China

Diet: Carnivore

Maximum length: 7 feet

Name means: “Swift thief”

Velociraptor stood less than two feet tall at the hip and weighed around 55 pounds. Michael Crichton’s description of the animal was inspired by its bigger cousin, Deinonychus. Even that dinosaur was smaller than the man-sized predators of Jurassic Park, though. Both Velociraptor and Deinonychus were dromaeosaurs: bird-like carnivores with bony rods in their tails and sickle-shaped toe claws. (When we say “bird-like,” we mean it: Dromaeosaurs are thought to be some of our feathered friends’ closest relatives. Many had plumage; Velociraptor itself came with sizable feathers on each arm.)

The notion that they hunted in packs can be traced back to the maverick paleontologist John Ostrom of Yale. During the 1960s, he worked at a Montana dig site where four Deinonychus were found around the body of a larger herbivore named Tenontosaurus. Ostrom’s belief that dromaeosaurs hunted in organized groups gained traction with scientists and novelists alike. A newer interpretation of the data is that the dinos lived alone and at most occasionally came together to mob vulnerable plant-eaters.

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Universal Studios and Amblin Entertainment, Inc. and Legendary Pictures Productions, LLC.
What Would It Cost to Operate a Real Jurassic Park?
Universal Studios and Amblin Entertainment, Inc. and Legendary Pictures Productions, LLC.
Universal Studios and Amblin Entertainment, Inc. and Legendary Pictures Productions, LLC.

As the Jurassic Park franchise has demonstrated, trapping prehistoric monsters on an island with bite-sized tourists may not be the smartest idea (record-breaking box office numbers aside). On top of the safety concerns, the cost of running a Jurassic Park would raise its own set of pretty pricey issues. Energy supplier E.ON recently collaborated with physicists from Imperial College London to calculate how much energy the fictional attraction would eat up in the real world.

The infographic below borrows elements that appear in both the Jurassic Park and Jurassic World films. One of the most costly features in the park would be the aquarium for holding the massive marine reptiles. To keep the water heated and hospitable year-round, the park would need to pay an energy bill of close to $3 million a year.

Maintaining a pterosaur aviary would be an even more expensive endeavor. To come up with this cost, the researchers looked at the yearly amount of energy consumed by the Eden Project, a massive biome complex in the UK. Using that data, they concluded that a structure built to hold winged creatures bigger than any bird alive today would add up to $6.6 million a year in energy costs.

Other facilities they envisioned for the island include an egg incubator, embryo fridge, hotel, and emergency bunker. And of course, there would be electric fences running 24/7 to keep the genetic attractions separated from park guests. In total, the physicists estimated that the park would use 455 million kilowatt hours a year, or the equivalent of 30,000 average homes. That annual energy bill comes out to roughly $63 million.

Keep in mind that energy would still only make up one part of Jurassic Park's hypothetical budget—factoring in money for lawsuits would be a whole different story.

Map of dinosaur park.
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