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Dinovolution

The evolution of the image of dinosaurs

New popular beliefs and new scientific discoveries have radically changed the image of dinosaurs. Our knowledge of dinosaurs is like a collage of thousands of constantly changing pieces that embrace a period of more than 150 years. Research is always done in the context of the philosophy and prejudices of the society of the time, and the study of dinosaurs is no exception. When researchers became interested in dinosaurs more than 150 years ago, their knowledge of the world and the place of men was very different from what we have today.

The images of the past

The earliest studies of dinosaur fossils date back to the early nineteenth century, well before the publication of Darwin's theory of evolution in 1859. Paleontologist Richard Owen, who invented the word "dinosaur," certainly did not believe this theory. Even after the publication of The Origin of Species, he remained a fierce opponent of evolutionism. He even opposed the "progressive" idea, which spread throughout the Victorian era, of the progression over time from simple life forms to more complex forms. He saw in the dinosaurs only a more advanced form of reptiles living at the time. When he formulated these ideas around 1840, the only evidence available to him was a few bones and skeleton fragments. Nobody had yet discovered a whole fossil and very few dinosaurs had been baptized. From those meager elements, Owen concluded that all the dinosaurs were large quadrupeds reminiscent of the rhinos of the time. He could not imagine the existence of the small dinosaurs with the nimble feet, the Struthiomimus, or that of the Archaeopteryx which was reminiscent of birds, and which evolutionists later named as the perfect example of the "missing link" announced by Darwin. When in 1860 Owen studied an Archaeopteryx shortly after its discovery, he declared that it was a bird and in no way a dinosaur.

Lethargic monsters

The Victorian ideas of progression over time led many nineteenth-century scientists to consider the dinosaurs as a failed experiment that had been replaced, as the fossils suggested, by far more advanced animals: mammals. But later discoveries and the growing number of data provided by the research would show that the stereotype of the monstrous and lethargic dinosaur was simplistic and inaccurate. Today we know that dinosaurs were complex and unique creatures that managed to dominate the Earth for more than 150 million years.

The link between dinosaurs and birds

The demonstration that birds descend from dinosaurs is for some biologists the greatest advance of paleontology. It is the English anatomist TH Huxley who first observed this resemblance around 1860, and for him the discovery of the Archaeopteryx, half bird half dinosaur, will be the obvious proof of the link between the dinosaurs and the birds. But at the beginning of the 20th century, this idea was no longer in vogue. It was only in 1969 that John Ostrom described the Deinonychus with many features reminiscent of birds. Since a number of "dinosaurs-birds" have been discovered, especially in China, the theory that birds are "living dinosaurs" is now widely accepted. The image of the dinosaurs was going to be transformed. Current reconstructions often show them as warm-blooded, feather-covered active animals, just like their descendants.

Current research

As more evidence emerges, new representations of dinosaurs will challenge the current view we have of them. We still have a lot to learn, as evidenced by the debate between scientists today on whether dinosaurs were warm-blooded or cold-blooded, and the unresolved enigma of their disappearance. The discovery of a single unpublished specimen can radically change our theories about dinosaurs. This specimen may present an anatomical feature never before seen in any dinosaur family and thus reveal the existence of a new species of a genus already known or a specimen still completely unknown. No one can say that everything has been said about this or that kind of dinosaur. By the end of the 21st century, many of our ideas about dinosaurs will no doubt look as strange and as archaic as those advanced by scientists and enthusiasts in the previous century.