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What Modern Scientists Think Dinosaurs Really Looked Like

Updated May 20, 2019 209.4k views10 items

Our understanding of dinosaur biology is changing all the time, both with new fossil discoveries and new technologies with which to interpret them. Although some argue in favor of conspiracy theories, we are beginning to put together a solid understanding of what these massive animals probably looked like. In time, we'll learn even more, and our collective mental image will adapt once again; nonetheless, the picture is clearer than ever before.

Through clever use of comparative biology, pigment analysis, and powerful new X-rays, paleontologists have a renewed confidence about the physical appearance of dinosaurs. This includes everything from their colors to their eating behaviors to the shapes of their tongues. The results can be as impressive as they are strange.

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  • Dinosaur Plumage May Have Been Scant Around Necks And Heads 

    The discovery of an Ornithomimus complete with feather and skin impressions has added more evidence to our understanding of dinosaur feather patterns. This Ornithomimus, like many dinosaurs, had feathers arranged much like the modern ostrich.

    Its head, neck, and lower legs were mostly bare of feathers, but the rest of its body was well coated in downy plumage. Like the ostrich, Ornithomimus may have used this unusual pattern to regulate its body temperature.

  • Pterosaur Fossils Have Been Found Covered In Pycnofibers That Resemble Fur

    Like their dinosaur cousins, pterosaurs were initially thought to have scaly or leathery skin all over their bodies. But over the course of the 20th century, the fossil record revealed that many parts of a pterosaur's body would have appeared furry.

    They were coated in pycnofibers, simple structures that are featherlike in composition but strandlike and fuzzy like fur. Subsequent discoveries suggest, however, that some parts of the pterosaur's body had more complex kinds of feathers with branching strands. If these findings are correct, this would be the first time feathers were found on an animal that was neither a dinosaur or a bird.

  • Early Dinosaurs Had Feathers Incapable Of Flight

    While the line between dinosaur and bird gradually blurred as both animals took to the sky, dinosaurs did not have flight feathers for most of their existence. While some dinos indeed appear to have been feathered, these creatures weren't very aerodynamic.

    Early dinosaur feathers have now been found in fossil impressions or preserved in amber, and paleontologists have gotten a good look at their structure. They appear to be very simple, with a poorly defined and flexible central shaft. The feathers would be better served as ornamental decoration to attract mates or to regulate a healthy body temperature.

  • The Tyrannosaurus Rex May Not Have Had Fluffy-Feathered Skin

    Discoveries of the late 20th and early 21st centuries showed many theropods and even tyrannosauroids had heavily feathered skin. Since the ever-popular T-Rex belongs in those categories, many suggested it, too, would have had feathers all over its body. 

    A 2017 study took skin impressions from a T-Rex specimen and discovered no evidence of the structures to support feathers. If they were on the T-Rex, the feathers would have been limited to their backs. It's also possible feathers were exclusive to smaller tyrannosaurids and were a method of keeping warm. 

    That said, the debate endures. A large-bodied tyrannosaurid named Yutyrannus huali was covered in feathers, and evidence of feathers and other body structures are not always preserved in the fossil record.

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