Dinosaurs Have Gotten So Much Cooler

I was just reading the February issue of National Geographic, with a feature article on the evolution of feathers by science writer Carl Zimmer. A thought that keeps striking me as I visit natural history museums and reading about recent discoveries in paleontology is how much cooler dinosaurs are now, compared with the conventional wisdom about them when I was a kid. I remember checking out books from the library that showed brontosaurs up to their shoulders in swamp water and stegosaurs dragging their bellies through the mud. Dinosaurs were cold-blooded failures of evolution who couldn’t keep up with the mammals.

Of course, I know now that even at that time, scientists knew dinosaurs were actually a success story: they were by far the dominant large land animals for about 160 million years (modern humans have been around approximately a million years, give or take). However, the discoveries of feathered dinosaurs along with revisions to dinosaur skeletal posture and better understanding of their environments have drawn a more complete picture than ever before–these discoveries have really made dinosaurs seem more real. I didn’t realize how common feathers were among dinosaurs, including species far removed from the ancestors of birds—most known feathered dinosaur species obviously didn’t fly, or were even related to flying animals. One species–Anchiornis–has even had its feather colors identified.

Long gone is the picture of the gray lumbering beast in the swamp, replaced by red and black feathered running creatures. I love how much we continue to discover about dinosaurs, and how little kids (and those of us who are still dinosaur-loving little kids at heart) have even more amazing things to learn. Obviously dinosaurs themselves haven’t changed; only our understanding has. But that’s how science works, and at its best it continues to inspire, teach, and show us a world much larger than ourselves.

8 Responses to “Dinosaurs Have Gotten So Much Cooler”

  1. 1 Robyn February 10, 2011 at 07:16

    I think Robert Bakker was the first to make dinos cool. And of course, Michael Crichton…

    • 2 Matthew R. Francis February 10, 2011 at 09:39

      I didn’t bring up Bakker, but I should have. The Dinosaur Heresies definitely made me very happy.

      Crichton, on the other hand, I find irritating. Maybe it’s because I’ve actually studied chaos theory. His dinos are pretty cool, though.

  2. 3 martenvandijk February 19, 2011 at 15:23

    As far as dinosaurs are concerned there is no doubt in my mind that the Strong Anthropic Principle makes just as much sense as the Strong Dinosauric Principle.

    For those who might not quite understand what I mean, don’t worry I am a Jack Vance Fan.

  3. 5 martenvandijk February 20, 2011 at 09:12

    You won’t find any creationist supporting the Strong Dinosauric Principle.

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