12 Dinosaur “Facts” Scientists Wish You’d Stop Believing

When you think of dinosaurs, do you still imagine giant gray scaly beasts that went extinct? Get ready to have your mind blown.

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Close up of bird
Photo: Jonah Goh/Shutterstock

Myth: Dinosaurs are extinct

There was definitely a mass extinction event 65 million years ago (probably related to a giant asteroid that smashed into Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula), and it did spell the end for most dinosaur species. But not all. “Today’s birds evolved from dinosaurs, which makes them every bit as much of a dinosaur as T. rex or Triceratops,” says paleontologist Steve Brusatte, author of the book, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs. “A good analogy is bats. Bats are a weird type of mammal that developed wings and the ability to fly. Birds are a weird type of dinosaur that did the same thing.”

Daniel Barta, a PhD candidate at the American Museum of Natural History’s Richard Gilder Graduate School, adds that there are more species of birds alive today (at least 10,000) than any other group of land-living animals with backbones. “Dinosaurs are alive and well today in the form of their bird descendants,” he says.

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fossil of Caudipteryx the dinosaur fossil that showed evidence of having feathers, that is transitional between dinosaurs and modern birds
Photo: maradon 333/Shutterstock

Myth: Dinosaurs were scaly lizards

Not necessarily. “There are thousands of fossils of feather-covered dinosaurs that have been found in China over the last two decades,” Brusatte says. In fact, fossils show that a cousin of the T. rex called Yutyrannus was covered in downy fluff (which probably didn’t make it less scary to its prey). Feathers would have helped dinosaurs regulate their body temperature, so they would have been particularly helpful to smaller animals such as Velociraptors. Even the biggest plant-eaters might have had a little fuzz, like the tufts of hair on elephants.

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Replica dinosaur fossil on the wall
Photo: Moolkum/Shutterstock

Myth: Dinosaurs were cold-blooded

Scientists can tell from looking at the microscopic structure of dinosaur bones that they grew rapidly, and only animals like birds and mammals, with fast metabolisms and well-regulated body temperatures, do that. It explains why dinosaurs evolved to have feathers for insulation, but it’s still not totally clear whether their body temperatures worked exactly like ours do. “There are a lot of different ways to be ‘warm-blooded,'” says Barta. “It is probable that dinosaurs were not exactly like birds or mammals in terms of their metabolism.”

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Fukui, Japan - February 22 2016, fossil of Sinosauropteryx the first dinosaur fossil ever found that showed evidence of having feathers, that is transitional between dinosaurs and modern birds

Myth: They were all grayish-green

Dinosaurs were actually quite colourful. Amazingly, paleontologists can tell what colours some of them were because they’ve found really well-preserved fossilized feathers containing structures called melanosomes. These held pigments, and their different shapes and arrangements indicate what colours they were. “It’s one of the most amazing things that’s happened in my lifetime as a scientist,” Brusatte says. For example, a small carnivorous dinosaur in northeastern China called a Sinosauropteryx probably had a striped brown tail and a raccoon-like bandit mask.

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Carnivorous dinosaur fossil
Photo: gorosan/Shutterstock

Myth: They were all giant

The skeletons of the biggest dinosaurs were, of course, the first ones that caught the attention of fossil-hunters. But now that paleontologists know what they’re looking for, they’re finding dinosaurs of all sizes and shapes. Long-necked sauropods like the Dreadnoughtus schrani could be as big as passenger airplanes. “But many dinosaurs were tiny,” Brusatte says. “Some were only the size of pigeons.”

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Close-up shot of a dinosaur fossil.
Photo: Marcio Jose Bastos Silva/Shutterstock

Myth: We’ve found fossils from most of the dinosaur species

Researchers have identified more than 700 species of extinct dinosaurs, but that’s probably a drop in the bucket—we know of about 10,000 species of modern avian dinosaurs, or birds. Fossils are being discovered at a rapid pace, with a new dinosaur species being identified every week, on average. That’s partly because paleontologists are being trained all over the world, Brusatte says, and they’re finding fossils in their countries. “Particularly younger people—women and men—in countries like China, Argentina, and Brazil. These enormous countries are developing quickly, opening up to the world, training their own scientists in new universities and museums.”

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Black and white sewer rat outside beg
Photo: kanashi/Shutterstock

Myth: Mammals evolved after dinosaurs died out

Mammals evolved from a reptile called the cynodont, which looked like a scaly rat and lived more than 200 million years ago, before dinosaurs. Mammals had diversified into marsupial and placental lines of evolution by about 165 million years ago, during the Jurassic period when dinosaurs were having their heyday. “There was never a mammal (that we know of) larger than a badger that lived with the dinosaurs,” Brusatte says. “But almost as soon as the non-bird dinosaurs went extinct, mammals started to diversify and spread around the world and grow to much bigger sizes.”

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Shanghai, China - April 13 2018, fossil of Pterosaur at Shanghai Natural History Museum. Pterosaurs were winged reptiles that lived alongside dinosaurs, the first vertebrates to evolve powered flight.

Myth: All big reptiles were dinosaurs

Flying reptiles like pterosaurs (which included pterodactyls) and marine reptiles like plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs were not dinosaurs, though they lived during the same time period and suffered the same fate during the mass extinction 65 million years ago. They often get lumped in with dinosaurs, though they belong in their own separate categories. But Brusatte says, “There were indeed some flying dinosaurs: birds!”

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skeleton of a dinosaur Tyrannosaurus Rex
Photo: Jose Angel Astor Rocha/Shutterstock

Myth: Dinosaurs moved really fast

“Some dinosaurs were fast, like the raptor dinosaurs, and some were slow, like the big long-necked dinosaurs,” Brusatte says. A recent study showed that Tyrannosaurus probably didn’t go much faster than jogging human, based on the stress running would have put on its massive foot bones.

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Tyrannosaurus Rex mounted skeleton, Museum of the Rockies, Bozeman, Montana, USA April 20th 2010
Photo: Edgloris Marys/Shutterstock

Myth: Tyrannosaurus stood upright like Godzilla

No, no, no—museums originally built many T. rex skeleton models in an upright position with their tails on the ground, but researchers have known since the 1960s that they actually must have held their bodies horizontally, like a giant teeter-totter. Somehow, the message doesn’t seem to be getting through to the public: When a Cornell paleontologist asked students to draw a picture of a Tyrannosaurus, most drew it upright. “I think popular culture usually takes a long time to catch up to current scientific thinking,” Barta says. “Even when updated images do arrive, the outdated images still persist and spread alongside the newer ones.”

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Tokyo, Japan - April 29 2017, Stegosaurus skeleton fossil at National Museum of Nature and Science. Stegosaurus was a large, plant-eating dinosaur that lived during the late Jurassic Period.

Myth: Tyrannosaurus would have hunted Stegosaurus

In fact, more time separates these two species of dinosaurs than separates T. rex from us today. Stegosaurus lived about 150 million years ago, during the late Jurassic period, and Tyrannosaurus evolved around 67 million years ago, during the Cretaceous period, just a few million years before the mass extinction event.

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 dinosaur footprints in kalasin, thailand
Photo: patarapong saraboon/Shutterstock

Myth: They were evolutionary failures

“I hate this stereotype that dinosaurs were evolutionary failures, that they were dim-witted, slow-moving, uninteresting animals that just sat around waiting to go extinct,” Brusatte says. “They were an empire that ruled the world for over 150 million years!” To put it in perspective, our own species, Homo sapiens, has only existed for about 200,000 years so far; our first ancestors only appeared 7 million years ago. And don’t forget: If you listen at a window, you’re likely to hear the call of a modern avian dinosaur in your own backyard.

Next, read on for more historical “facts” that are actually not true.

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Originally Published on Reader's Digest