The Changing View of Dinosaurs


Dinosaurs, once thought to be sluggish and dumb creatures, are now believed to have been active and intelligent. There are very few similarities between our modern concept of dinosaurs and the one proposed during the early days of paleontology. This change reflects the work of many paleontologists and constantly improving technology. The media has led to more exposure of fossil discoveries and adds a spark to public interest. Technology will continue to enhance paleontology in the future. Another element in the changing view is increasing fossil evidence that the closest relatives to dinosaurs were in fact birds, not reptiles as previously thought. The first reported dinosaur fossils were discovered in 1676, but legends of dragons hint at even earlier knowledge of these extinct animals.

In 1842 Richard Owens, an English anatomist, coined the name Dinosauria. Meaning 'terrible lizards,' this name intended to describe an extinct group of reptiles. Owens and other scientists began to show the world their perception of what a dinosaur might look like. They were portrayed as large, iguana-like quadrupeds and were vastly different from modern dinosaur renderings. The public gained interest in these extinct animals and soon paleontologists began proposing their own theories about dinosaur behavior. In the late nineteenth century, two major paleontologists would make huge contributions to science. Edward Cope and Othneil Charles Marsh would wage a 'bone war' against each other. Each sought to gain scientific credibility by discovering and naming the most new dinosaur species. Some of their most significant discoveries include popular dinosaurs such as, Triceratops, Stegosaurus, and Apatosaurus. They are credited with discovering and naming nearly 150 new species of dinosaur.

Dinosaurs would still be viewed as simply large, extinct reptiles until the discovery of Deinonychus in 1964. Named by John Ostrom, Deinonychus was agile and birdlike, unconventional characteristics for a dinosaur. Close observation of dinosaur bone structure reveals a strong correlation with birds. Following Ostrom, other paleontologists such as Bob Bakker would contribute to a new perspective of dinosaurs. Bakker illustrated Deinonychus in a way the public had never seen. His book, The Dinosaur Heresies depicted his belief that dinosaurs were endothermic (warm blooded) and that some may have been feathered. In 1978, Jack Horner discovered Maiasaura, the first solid evidence of dinosaurs as caring parents. Horner and his team found nests with carefully laid eggs and hatchlings that had bones too weak to walk on their own. Paleontology has revealed many groundbreaking discoveries. Notable finds include the discoveries from Liaoning, China, revealing the presence of feathered structures. Sinosauropteryx, a small theropod, was one of the first dinosaurs found with the fossilized feathers. The bones of Microraptor preserved wings not made for flying, but for gliding from tree to tree. It is believed that feathers evolved for insulation rather than flight and were only adapted for that purpose over time. We now know that the classic Archaeopteryx, once believed to be the first bird, was a theropod dinosaur with feathers designed for flight. The modern scientific community strongly believes that many dinosaur species were feathered.

In the 1990s, dinosaurs continued their fame in movies and television. Ever since the dawn of film making, there were dinosaurs. Modern movies have incorporated science and movie making technology to make accurate representations of dinosaurs. The 1993 blockbuster, Jurassic Park, was one of the most noteworthy. Although tainted by Hollywood, the Jurassic Park franchise shows dinosaurs as extremely intelligent, agile, and bird-like. The expanding use of CGI has spurred several scientific documentaries such as Walking with Dinosaurs. Science has continued to progress as paleontologists today have a wide range of tools at their disposal. Computers allow them to recreate dinosaurs virtually, to study their movements and bone structure. Medical technology allows paleontologists to observe the bones on the microscopic level and even look inside them. As technology continues to progress, so will the ways in which we study dinosaurs. Throughout history, people have shared a deep fascination of dinosaurs. Our views of dinosaurs have been shaped by the work of many scientists. Today, pictures of agile, feathered dinosaurs are commonplace. Long gone are the sluggish dinosaurs our parents and grandparents grew up with. The world view of dinosaurs has forever changed and will continue to change as we learn more about these amazing creatures.