Let’s not forget how cool dinosaurs probably looked

We know a little bit about how dinosaurs probably looked: we’re learning that a lot of them had feathers, and even beginning to be able to figure out what patterns might have been on their plumage. But there’s a lot we don’t know; we may never know for sure.

In evolutionary biology, when you don’t know something about an extinct species—what kind of nest it built, or what sounds it made, or how many babies it had—you look at the species that evolved from it. You infer that it probably was similar to at least some of its descendent lineages. For dinosaurs, then, we would look at birds.

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I remember, as a kid, thoughtfully coloring my dinosaur coloring books and paper-mache dinosaur scultures in shades of green and brown. I knew about camouflage, and I was sure that this earthy color palette must have been the one favored by these animals. Silly me.

Sure, there are brown birds. But there are blue birds, and yellow birds, and red birds; and even if you think perhaps feather evolution had not yet gotten so sophisticated as to produce a hummingbird’s iridescent purples when the dinosaurs roamed the earth, here is this King Vulture to demonstrate that you don’t need colorful feathers to be bright.

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Still, you do want to keep your feathers looking good.

Plus, why not add on a weird nose flap and a big cord running down the back of your neck, just for fun?

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Lest you think the King Vulture an outlier, take a look at this Southern Cassowary:

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If someone gave you the skeletons of these birds and asked you to reconstruct their appearances, would you ever come up with looks so outlandish? So go ahead and imagine dinosaurs in some crazy colors. You’re probably not wrong.

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And of course, enjoy the fact that we get to see our currently living dinosaurs in all their strange glory.

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3 thoughts on “Let’s not forget how cool dinosaurs probably looked

  1. Birds are wonderfully varied in colour, sound and quirky characteristics, I can bet dinosaurs were too. I remember in my childhood the link between dinosaurs and birds was not so obvious; yes a few had wings or feathers, but now there are countless new discoveries and there can be no doubt. There are even dinosaurs with bat-like wing membranes, though, no ancestors to modern bats and flying mammals. Great insightful blog I love it :)

  2. It’s impossible to say in which category the dinosaurs were more pronounced: In colorful and distinctive bodily characteristics, or in verbal “speech” capabilities. Surely in both, a wide and wild assortment of variation would have been evident. None more exciting, however, than the cries, calls, shrieks, squeals, and indeed “songs” that must have punctuated the prehistoric landscape populated by the dinosaurs of many different ages. When we hear the often deafening honks and squawks emitted by modern geese, or even small parrots and other “talkers”, one can only imagine the thunderous, tree-shaking roars uttered by the larger, late-period dinosaurs. Such noises would have also signaled and betrayed one’s presence and location, which could prove fatal if one tree over, a hungry tyrannosaurus was looking for its next meal. An interesting triad of color and body decoration, in combination with camouflage and lastly voice verbalizations, must have all played intertwined roles in the world of the dinosaurs. Perhaps if you could fly, you could afford to play dress-up and strut about in manner of gaudy displays. A slow moving vegetarian, however, might rely instead on camouflage, while others kept in touch via loud vocal communications. We see all of these ploys in use throughout the modern world of birds, and back in the day, so to speak, the steady refinements of these three attributes must have been glorious to both see and hear.

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