Our Knowledge of Dinosaurs is Evolving. So is the Way we Depict Them
Earlier this month, the American Museum of Natural History in New York opened its latest exhibit (paywall) on everyone’s favorite dinosaur: the iconic Tyrannosaurus rex. Through the summer of 2020, visitors can feast their eyes on the massive predator’s teeth, claws and, oh yes, its bristly feathers.
If you’ve noticed that dinosaurs are starting to look less fierce than they did in the era of Jurassic Park, you’re right. But this shift is only the latest in a series of changes in the ways scientific artists have depicted dinosaurs since the 1960s. The more scientists learn about the animals and how they likely lived, the more the artistry of them has evolved, too.
Dinosaurs weren’t of much interest in the middle of the 20th century. Based on evidence from their fossilized skeletons, scientists blamed them for their own extinction. The assumption was that large, lumbering creatures were not cut out to survive. Now we know that a massive asteroid slamming into the planet (paywall) was the source of their demise.
Early depictions of the creatures were unimaginative. “The way Brontosaurus and Diplodocus (the biggest dinosaurs) were illustrated, they were like giant, gray vacuum cleaners with very, very short legs,” Bob Bakker, a paleontologist and paleo-artist, explained on the 99% Invisible podcast last October.
While Bakker was an undergraduate at Yale studying paleontology in the 1960s, one of his professors took him on a dig for fossils of Deinonychus, a smaller carnivorous dinosaur. The professor, named Jon Ostrom, led him to the idea that dinosaurs likely carried themselves differently than paleontologists had believed. Instead of being more like modern lizards with tails dragging behind them, Bakker and Ostrom started to think that maybe dinosaurs were more like birds, with musculature similar to the animals today.
Although they weren’t the first paleontologists to think of dinosaurs this way, Bakker was one of the first to actually draw dinosaurs as lean, mean, meat-eating machines. His drawings, combined with more evidence of dinosaurs’ high-activity levels, led to more and more ferocious depictions of the ancient creatures through the ’60s and ’70s. By the time Jurassic Park came out in 1993, there was no question of these creatures’ finesse.
But in the two decades since the blockbuster hit came out, dinosaur depictions have changed even more. Artists realized that they were drawing dinosaurs based on skeletons alone. Although their drawings were accurate based on these skeletons, there is so much more to all animals besides their muscles and bones. They have all kinds of soft tissue like skin and fat that can change their appearance—and that don’t preserve well in fossils.
“In order to get the overall picture of dinosaurs right, I think you need a healthy dose of speculation in there,” John Conway, an artist and co-author of the book All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals, told the podcast.
In All Yesterdays, Conway and others tried drawing dinosaurs in ways that were scientifically accurate based on the latest studies, but included more speculative information about the creatures’ behavior that could inform how they looked. For example, a Triceratops may have had spines all the way down its back, in addition to the three spiky horns on its head. The goal isn’t necessarily to be perfectly correct, but rather to show that scientists don’t have all the information about how dinosaurs looked.
As paleontologists continue to make discoveries about ancient creatures, the way we see them will also change. While T. rex may have thin, coarse feathers in our depictions now, perhaps later scientists will discover that they were likely fluffier, or even more colorful than we assume today.