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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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Courtesy of the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, Drumheller, Canada
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The Exquisitely Preserved ‘Mona Lisa of Dinosaurs’ Has Been Named
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Courtesy of the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, Drumheller, Canada

Experts say the spectacularly well-preserved nodosaur now on display at Canada's Royal Tyrrell Museum (RTM) represents a new species—a hulking, armored beast that was not too proud to hide when predators were on the prowl. The research team described this "dinosaur equivalent of a tank" in the most recent issue of the journal Current Biology.

The nodosaur's massive remains were uncovered by miners in Alberta in 2011 in what was a seabed about 110 million years ago, when the creature died. The enormous block of stone and fossil was transferred to the museum, where technician Mark Mitchell set about freeing the specimen from its final resting place.

A researcher with a small pick prepares a dinosaur specimen.

The task took Mitchell more than five years and 7000 hours. Every one of them was worth it: The results are breathtaking.

Closeup of a nodosaur fossil.

"This nodosaur is truly remarkable in that it is completely covered in preserved scaly skin, yet is also preserved in three dimensions, retaining the original shape of the animal. The result is that the animal looks almost the same today as it did back in the Early Cretaceous," museum scientist Caleb Brown said in a statement. "If you just squint your eyes a bit, you could almost believe it was sleeping. ... It will go down in science history as one of the most beautiful and best preserved dinosaur specimens—the Mona Lisa of dinosaurs."

While Mitchell chipped away at the stone tomb, Brown and his colleagues began trying to identify the animal inside. They knew it was a member of the stocky, heavily armored nodosaur family, but they couldn't figure out which one.

Eventually they realized why—it's not a species or genus anyone has ever seen before. Even so, the incredible quality of the museum's specimen made it possible for them to reconstruct what it might have looked like in life.

Chemical analysis of the nodosaur's scales and horn sheaths indicated the presence of a reddish-gold pigment called pheomelanin. In people, pheomelanin is what gives redheads their coppery locks and lends our lips and nipples their pinkish color. In nodosaurs, it probably turned them orange.

Some parts of them, at least. The researchers realized that their specimen, a herbivore, most likely had a pale belly, like a squirrel, and darker coloration on its back. This color patterning is called countershading. It's used to help animals blend into their surroundings and hide from predators.

That's right: Apparently the dinosaur's massive punk spikes and tough hide were not enough to keep it safe. It needed camouflage, too.

"Strong predation on a massive, heavily armored dinosaur illustrates just how dangerous the dinosaur predators of the Cretaceous must have been," Brown said.

The team named their new species Borealopelta markmitchelli. The genus name is a combination of "borealis" (Latin for "northern") and "pelta" (Greek for "shield'"). The species name is a tribute to Mitchell, the scientists write, for his "patient and skilled" revealing of their pride and joy.

All images courtesy of the Royal Tyrell Museum.

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What 6 Dinosaurs from Jurassic Park Really Looked Like
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Universal Pictures

by Alex Carter

In the 24 years that have passed since the original Jurassic Park hit theaters, what we know about dinosaurs has changed—a lot. Here's some of the new research that may change how you imagine these ancient animals, along with illustrations of what the animals may have looked like when they actually roamed the Earth.

1. VELOCIRAPTOR

Movie:

Velociraptors in Jurassic Park.
Universal Pictures

Reality:

A drawing of a Velociraptor.
Matt Martyniuk, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY SA-3.0

A far cry from the large and vicious hunters of the Jurassic Park movies, velociraptors were in fact small and covered in feathers. More like vicious turkeys, if you will. The dinosaur in the movies was based on the Deinonychus, a much larger species whose name, appropriately, means “terrible claw.” (Even Deinonychus wasn't quite as big as the raptors portrayed in the movie.) That said, other large raptors have since been discovered, including the entire genus Utahraptor. (Its discoverers originally considered naming the type species Utahraptor spielbergi in hopes that the director would finance their research, but the name-for-funds deal never went through, so it was ultimately called Utahraptor ostrommaysorum.)

2. TYRANNOSAURUS REX

Movie:

A T. Rex in Jurassic Park.
Universal Pictures

Reality:

A feathered version of a T. Rex.
A feathered version of a T. Rex.

Large. Imposing. Fluffy? Apparently, the T. rex looked much, much stranger than the beast brought to life on the silver screen. Its face might have been covered with patches of armored skin and large scales, its eyes were placed much farther forward than other dinosaurs, and it carried itself rather horizontally, not upright, as most people still imagine it. It's thought from discoveries in close relatives that T. rex was covered in some feathers for a part of its life (especially as a juvenile, as seen in The Lost World), although the details remain hotly debated. Also debated are what it used its arms for: Hypotheses have ranged from a role in reproduction to lifting itself up (which is increasingly considered unlikely) to nothing at all.

3. COMPSOGNATHUS

Movie:

A Compsognathus in Jurassic Park.
Universal Pictures

Reality:

A feathered version of a Compsognathus.
A feathered version of a Compsognathus.

This dinosaur was actually bigger in real life, although not by much. The smaller version depicted in the movies was based on what is now believed to be a young (and therefore small) Compsognathus. While many dinosaurs of its type were covered in feathers, there has been a notable lack of evidence about whether compies, as they're known, had feathers or scales. Most artists tend to draw simple proto-feathers, though; the result is an animal that looks more furry than feathery—and remarkably like a stretched rat.

4. TRICERATOPS

Movie:

A Triceratops in Jurassic Park.
Universal Pictures

Reality:

These creatures are generally portrayed as leathery and pointy—a bit like a rhinoceros designed by committee. The reality is somewhat stranger: They actually resembled porcupines. Some paleontologists believe that several nipple-shaped protrusions in their skin suggest where bristles would have been. In other areas, their skin was likely scaled rather than leathery. Their horns are another mystery. A 2009 study indicated that they were used largely for combat with other Triceratops, but they probably had a role in courtship as well.

5. BRACHIOSAURUS

Movie:

A Brachiosaurus in Jurassic Park.
Universal Pictures

Reality:

A drawing of a Brachiosaurus.

In Jurassic Park, the Brachiosaurus is the first dinosaur seen after everyone arrives on the island, memorably rearing up to get at some particularly delicious leafage. But that behavior is now considered unlikely. The book Biology of the Sauropod Dinosaurs attempted to calculate if Brachiosaurs were able to rear on their hind legs and concluded, “Brachiosaurus would have expended considerably more energy [than a Diplodocus], could not have attained a stable upright pose, and would have risked serious injury to its forefeet when descending too rapidly.” Dr. Heinrich Mallison noted that it “was probably unlikely to use a bipedal … posture regularly and for an extended period of time. Although this dinosaur certainly could have reared up, for example during mating, this was probably a rare and short-lived event.”

6. SPINOSAURUS

Movie:

A Spinosaurus in Jurassic Park III.
Universal Pictures

Reality:

A drawing of a Spinosaurus.

Joschua Knüppe, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

The Spinosaurus was discovered only a few years after the Tyrannosaurus, but it never attracted fans in quite the same way. The fossils were destroyed in World War II during an Allied bombing raid on Munich, and the dinosaur became largely forgotten. However, Jurassic Park III resurrected the dinosaur's fame with a showdown that saw the Spinosaurus kill a Tyrannosaurus. Many fans cried foul, and the size of the Spinosaurus was indeed a mistake … in reality, it was much bigger.

It would have been up to three times heavier and 20 feet longer; a creature on the higher end of that range would have been bigger than even Jurassic World's (invented) I. rex. But could Spinosaurus have taken on a T. rex and lived? Almost certainly not. While physically bigger and armed with a bigger jaw, it was much less powerful, as most paleontologists now believe Spinosaurus used its long jaws for fishing. It actually lived mostly in the water.

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