Here’s How We Know What Dinosaurs Probably Looked Like

If you were to ask any third-grader what a Tyrannosaurus Rex or Brontosaurus looked like, they would give you a detailed description. This is because there is so much information on their appearance, but it didn’t come without cost.

Dinosaurs disappeared from the scene millions of years ago, so humans have never had an opportunity to see one in person. Technology and the hard work of some dedicated scientists, however, give us a fair depiction of what those reptiles looked like, including their color.

Photos: Pixabay / adventurous_blondine

Rather than simply taking this for granted, how do we know that the scientific description is accurate? What really goes into piecing this information together?

We Are Working With Limited Information

First of all, it’s important to understand that there were many dinosaurs, and in some cases, we have extremely limited information about a particular dinosaur species.

Those dinosaurs may still be given a description, but scientists agree that there is a lot of information necessary in order to be precise with the description.

One vertebrae paleontologist who specializes in dinosaur reevaluating, Darren Naish, spoke on the subject, saying they actually know more than paleontologists tend to convey. He also indicated that they know more than what is given to the average person.

Photos: Pixabay / DariuszSankowski

For example, he feels it is misleading when we see memes that claim the T-Rex could look like a giant sparrow. In his estimation, that is preposterous because ‘we know for sure.’

Reconstructing dinosaurs can be done scientifically by two different types of experts: paleoartists and paleontologists.

Paleontologists and Paleoartists

Most of us are familiar with paleontologists, scientists that study prehistoric animals. Paleoartists, on the other hand, are not that familiar to us but we certainly understand their work; they give us the artistic depictions of dinosaurs.

There are three different factors that are considered when reconstructing dinosaurs. The most important are the fossils, which are typically bits and pieces of the skeleton.

Next, they may sometimes find organic tissue that has been mummified. This actually occurs more often than most people realize.

Phylogenetic Bracketing

When scientists are unable to look at the mummified tissue or fossils, they compare the anatomy of dinosaurs and other animals they feel descended from them. This is known as phylogenetic bracketing.

Phylogenetic bracketing is not necessarily the most accurate option for determining the appearance of the dinosaur. There is a lot of wiggle room, and there is the possibility that it could be abused by an artist who decides to take a little too much artistic liberty.

Essentially, paleoartists can work with paleontologists to reconstruct the dinosaur from the inside. To be more specific, they start with the skeleton and then add the details to the surface.

1. The Dinosaurs Skeleton Comes First

If they have enough bone fossil fragments available, they can reconstruct the skeleton. One vertebrate paleontologist, Mike Benton, says it is similar to the forensic work done by police.

After putting the skeleton together and extrapolating any information necessary, they can determine the posture of the reptile. They can then look at footprints to cross-reference any additional information.

2. Adding the Flesh

Mark Witton is both a paleoartist and paleontologist. He says looking at the bones can help to determine where muscles were attached, because it leaves behind scars.

In many cases, they can look at the muscles of living creatures to determine the muscle structure of these reptiles that lived millions of years ago.

It isn’t an exact science, but it is close enough to get a general indication.

3. Adding the Skin

Witton speaks about how skin does survive, even from those ancient fossils, but it doesn’t survive as often as they would like. As a result, experts will predict the skin type if there is no skin available.

Photos: Pixabay / DariuszSankowski

They will also use blood vessel impressions, depressions, and creases to determine what type of skin was on the bone.

4. Adding the Color

In China, paleontologists found some fossilized, feathered dinosaurs in 1996. There were many that were well preserved, and since then other species have been discovered.

This allowed scientists to determine that feathers were a part of some dinosaurs, and they learned more about the colors of those dinosaurs.

About 20 years ago, there was another explanation given. Scientists proposed that certain cells, known as melanosomes, were responsible for giving the colors to those reptiles.

5. Drawing the Face

Now that they have the skin and color drawn out, it’s time to draw the face. It can be difficult to reconstruct what a dinosaur looked like, but scientists do feel that they are being consistent with other soft-tissue animals.

There is a lot of information and perhaps some misinformation that circulates on the appearance of dinosaurs. One thing we know for certain is the fact that scientists work very hard to be as accurate as possible.

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