We love dinosaurs. As kids, we learned facts about them in science class, marveled at their skeletons in museums, and played out epic dino battles with our plastic toys. But how much of what we were taught about them is actually true? You might be shocked to know that a majority of what we learned about dinosaurs in our youth was actually not true at all.
Dinosaurs Roared Like Giant Lizard Lions
University of Texas at Austin-based paleontologist Julia Clarke has spent a lot of time studying whether or not dinosaurs could vocalize. Until 2013, when Clarke and her team discovered a nearly intact syrinx in a fossilized Late Cretaceous bird Vegavis iaai, an ancestor of ducks and geese, no dinosaur vocal box had ever been discovered.
Nearly all existing species with the ability to vocalize have a larynx, which is your standard vocal box. Birds have a syrinx, which is more complex than the larynx, and accounts for the unique noises our feathered friends make. The syrinx Clarke found is proof animals of the dinosaur-age were able to vocalize, though neither syrinx nor layrinx has ever been found with dinosaur remains.
Clarke and her team have developed a theory, by which they think “many dinosaurs did not have a syrinx but in fact vocalized in a manner more similar to that which we see in crocs… low-frequency booms, maybe using a resonating structure such as an inflated esophagus or something like that, and using the larynx, not a syrinx.”
Dinosaurs Were Green and Scaly
People imagine dinosaurs as green and scaly because we assume they must have looked like big modern reptiles like crocodiles or alligators. In actuality, they were probably brightly colored and, at least for part of their lives, covered in feathers.
Tyrannosaurus Rex’s Small Forearms Were Weak and Useless
You might have heard someone tell you that Tyrannosaurus rex’s relatively small forearms were useless appendages, but that probably wasn’t the case. The dinosaur was heavily muscled and could probably move in excess of 430 pounds with each of those arms.
The Brontosaurus Is a Real Dinosaur
You may have learned that the long-necked, long-tailed “thunder lizard” is called a brontosaurus, but it never really existed. More precisely, the name came about after some confusion about the assemblage of a skeleton that was actually an apatosaurus. The paleontologist had the wrong skull on the specimen and named it brontosaurus, but it wasn’t a new dinosaur at all–it was just an apatosaurus with the head of a camarasaurus. The name brontosaurus continued to live on in pop culture, but no scientist would use it to name a specific dinosaur.
Dinosaurs Were Cold Blooded
For decades scientists believed that dinosaurs were cold blooded like modern reptiles. But Australian scientists stated that if the dinosaurs did have cold blood they would not have had the muscular power to prey on other animals. As more evidence is found that shows that dinosaurs were fast-moving carnivores, it is more likely that they were warm blooded like their avian descendants.
Velociraptors Were Terrifying and Larger Than Humans
Most of us never heard of a velociraptor before Jurassic Park, so those movies gave us the idea that they were scaly, human-sized predators that were incredibly smart… smart enough to open doors! The truth is that although they were vicious little things, they weren’t much bigger than a large dog and were likely covered in feathers. They looked more like a big, angry chicken than a giant, smooth lizard.
Dinosaurs Lived in a Tropical, Endless Summer
Every painting and museum display you see of dinosaurs shows them in a lush, tropical setting. And although many dinosaurs lived in such a setting, Late Cretaceous sites in the High Arctic lived in cool habitats that were dark for long stretches of the year. So, yes, you might have actually seen at T. rex tromping through the snow.
Anything Prehistoric and Reptilian Was a Dinosaur
A lot of people assume that any animal that is extinct and reptilian is a dinosaur, but that’s just not true. Dinosaurs were just one lineage within a group called archosaurs, which also includes pterosaurs and crocodiles. They all split from each other some 245 million years ago. Although they lived alongside dinosaurs, the long-necked, swimming plesiosaurs (pictured), flying pterosaurs and other giant reptiles were not dinosaurs.
Dinosaurs Were All Giant Animals
Dinosaurs came in all sizes, but the big ones captured our imagination most. Among the smallest dinosaurs were bird-sized forms such as the feathery Anchiornis and the tiny theropod Scansoriopteryx. Dinosaurs really existed like the ones the little girl fed in The Lost World: Jurassic Park.
Dinosaurs Died Out Because They Failed to Evolve
Let’s put this into perspective: Dinosaurs survived for 150 million years. Hominids have only been kicking around for six million years, while Homo sapiens has only been around for about 200,000 years. We have a long way to go before we last as long as the dinosaurs did, and we don’t know how we would adapt to an asteroid impact like the dinosaurs endured.
Dinosaurs Dragged Their Tails
A lot of older museum exhibits of dinosaurs assembled the bones so that the tails were dragging on the ground, like Godzilla. This is one myth the Jurassic Park movies helped dispel, because the tails were lifted off the ground and aided in balance. There is no evidence of “tail tracks” in fossils of dinosaur footprints.
Dinosaurs Are Extinct
There is ample evidence that points to birds evolving from dinosaurs–to the extent that some scientists would argue that birds ARE dinosaurs. The avian line of dinosaurs survived after the asteroid impact that wiped out the rest of the dinosaurs. Ostriches, chickens, pigeons, penguins, eagles and all the other birds are more closely related to dinosaurs than crocodiles, turtles, lizards and snakes.
Dinosaurs Terrorized Our Mammalian Ancestors
The mammals that existed during the reign of the dinosaurs were relatively small. So they must have fled in terror from these giant, prehistoric reptiles, right? Well, those ancient mammals ate dinosaurs, too. A specimen of Repenomamus—a 125-million-year-old mammal about the size of a raccoon—had baby dinosaurs preserved in its gut.
Dinosaurs Were the First Reptiles to Rule the Earth
Since a lot of people just assume that any ancient reptile is a dinosaur, then dinosaurs must have been the first reptiles to rule the Earth. Not true. The first reptiles evolved from their amphibian ancestors during the Carboniferous period some 300 million years ago. The first true dinosaurs didn’t appear until about 230 million years ago.
Dinosaurs Were All Equally Stupid
It’s true that the stegosaurus has a walnut-sized brain and that most herbivores were probably not much smarter than the plants they munched on. But meat eaters, like the allosaurus, had larger brains and one theropod, Troodon (pictured), must have seemed like a genius compared to his peers.
An Asteroid Killed All the Dinosaurs Quickly
Although most scientists agree that a mile-wide meteor that crashed into the Yucatan Peninsula some 65.5 million years ago helped wipe out the dinosaurs, most people assume this happened fairly quickly. In actuality, it took a couple hundred thousand years after the impact for most of the dinosaurs to die off.
Giant Dinosaurs Had a Second Brain Near Their Butt
Some of us were taught that dinosaurs’ brains were so small that some of the larger ones needed a second brain at the tail end of their spines to coordinate their legs and tails. Now paleontologists agree that, like many vertebrates, dinosaurs had a slight expansion of the spinal cord in the vicinity of their limbs and not a second brain.
Dinosaurs Were Slow and Lumbering
Many movies and TV shows have depicted dinosaurs as slow, lumbering beasts due to the immense size of some of them. Most dinosaurs were probably as mobile as large, modern mammals. One study in 2000 of an exceptionally well-preserved hadrosaur fossil suggested that dinosaurs had powerful hearts more like those of birds or mammals than modern reptiles, so they had higher metabolisms and were more active.
Archaeopteryx Is the Link Between Dinosaurs and Birds
We used to hear that the archaeopteryx was the link between dinosaurs and birds. We were told it was the first bird (“It had feathers!”). Well, now that we know that lots of dinosaurs like T. rex and velociraptor had feathers, it’s suddenly not so special that arcaheopteryx had feathers. In fact, it wasn’t the first “bird” at all. It was just another feathered dinosaur.
Humans and Dinosaurs Coexisted
The only time a human has every laid eyes on dinosaur was in a movie like Jurassic Park. Dinosaurs died out some 65 million years ago, while the fossils of our earliest human ancestors are only 6 million years old.
Dinosaurs Had Boring Sex Lives
Most of your childhood lessons on dinosaurs probably never leaned into their reproductive habits, and any mention of prehistoric hanky-panky likely covered the simple fact that they laid eggs. Turns out, though, that dinosaur courtship may have been an elaborate affair a lot like bird romance. Massive scrapes in Colorado sandstone suggest that dinos performed elaborate mating ritual displays in order to impress potential mates, with suitors basically dancing to woo partners.