A Glimpse at the Most Detailed Fossils in the World and What They Tell Us

This feathered dinosaur may have lived in tree tops and used its four wings to glide.
This feathered dinosaur may have lived in tree tops and used its four wings to glide.
The bumpy bead-like texture of a chameleon's skin.
The bumpy bead-like texture of a chameleon's skin.
Notice the spiked appearance of a bearded dragon's scales.
Notice the spiked appearance of a bearded dragon's scales.

Scales, skin, or feathers?

Prior to the 1990s all depictions of dinosaurs were of large reptilian creatures with scales growing on their skin like you'd see on an iguana. Sometimes a particularly forward thinking artist might make them with beaded skin like a python or textured skin like a bearded dragon. Once or twice some really rebellious artists may have put feathers on their creations. Still we didn't know what they really looked like and there was a lot of debate. Archeopteryx was discovered in the 1800's. It seemed to be an animal that was halfway between a dinosaur and a bird. It was covered in feathers but had a long tooth-filled snout and lizard-like tail. There had been a lot of debate about raptors, a type of predatory dinosaur that seemed to share a lot in common with birds. However the debate was more about whether or not they were cold blooded like a lizard or hot blooded like a bird. Feathers didn't come into the debate until some remarkable discoveries in China started to hit the news. Here small predatory dinosaurs started to be unearthed that had feathers... but curiously enough most did not have functioning wings. Their feathers were far too short, even stranger some of them wore nothing but down feathers, they type you'd find on a newly hatched chicken. Were they for display? To keep warm? To deflect rain? Or for some other purpose? Theories abounded and it became the new in thing to depict at least raptors with feathers. There is still no evidence other dinosaurs were feathered but a lack of evidence doesn't always mean they weren't. We will just have to wait and see to anyone else shows up in a boa.

Mini Microraptor Documentary

Color

For many years dinosaurs got painted in only green and gray. It was a bleak colorless world for the paleo-artist. I am not entirely sure why this was but since these days there has been increasing speculation on what dinosaurs and other extinct creatures actually looked like. It is true that on very rare occasions fossils can be found with imprints of skin texture or feathers but they don't also capture color... that is until someone found out how to tease the color out of them. Jakob Vinther, who was studying at Yale at the time, was looking at a squid fossil when he realized that when the ink sack of the squid was seen through a microscope he could see molecules that could have been what made up the color of the ink. Curious he turned his attention to a fossil feather and realized it too had these pigment molecules. So what color was this feathered dinosaur? Black with an iridescent sheen, probably much like the grackle pictured below. Since this discovery others have worked on the issue and they are now pioneering new techniques using a scanning electron microscope. In fact they have even determined the entire body color pattern of Anchiornis.

Common grackle's have an iridescent sheen over their black feathers that may resemble some feathered dinosaurs of the past.
Common grackle's have an iridescent sheen over their black feathers that may resemble some feathered dinosaurs of the past.
Anchiornis is the first dinosaur to show its color over its entire body.
Anchiornis is the first dinosaur to show its color over its entire body.

Age

For many years people thought dinosaurs must have lived to great ages in order to grow so big. Some thought they might live like a tortoise with 200 years to claim on the earth. Argentinosaurus could grow 120 feet long and weigh over 100 tons but hatched out of an egg vaguely the size of a soccer ball. How could it pack that much growing in without having a long time to do so? It seemed an impossible idea and yet, dinosaurs lived fast and died young according to new studies.

It has been found that bones show growth much like trees do, with rings in their center. This wasn't discovered earlier because it is generally not a good idea to saw a perfectly good fossilized bone in half and yet it was done to the world's most famous T-rex, Sue of the Field Museum in Chicago. Sue was already a sensation having shown evidence of living past a leg injury that would have made hunting impossible (thus proving she had at the very least a mate feeding her, if not an entire pack.) Sue was as large as she could have gotten, a complete adult, and was already showing the wear and tear of an elderly animal and yet she turned out to be only 28 years of age. Further study on other T-rex specimens showed that they maintained three growth spurts in their lives, the biggest being in their teen years where they could gain four and a half pounds a day for several years. They would be effectively full grown by twenty and were more than lucky to still be alive at thirty. It was an astonishing find.

What's for lunch?

the diet of extinct animals has largely been a massive guessing game based on the teeth of said animals. For instance a mammoth has the large grinding teeth similar to an elephant so we know they, as well as other large herbivores before them, probably shared a similar diet. Fish eaters tended to have sharp straight teeth and carnivores preying on land animals had a tendency to have long, sharp, curved teeth that resembled daggers. Still some animals have odd teeth, or no teeth at all. The farther back you go in time the more foreign and bizarre creatures get. The main predator in the Cambrian era was anomalocaris, an animal so weird that fragments of its fossils were thought to be three distinct animals. Only when a complete fossil was found could paleontologists put the big picture together. So how are we to tell for certain what an animal ate?

Fortuneately there are a very few fossils that have saved the soft tissue matter of these animals. Every once in a while fish fossils will be found with other fish in their belly and on even rarer occasions a dinosaur will be found that looks like an X-ray. In China an 8 foot long Sinocalliopteryx ate two primitive birds before its demise, as shown by the leg bones in its stomach.

This fossil fish from Wyoming is seen eating another smaller fish at the moment of its death.
This fossil fish from Wyoming is seen eating another smaller fish at the moment of its death.

Girl or Boy?

The sex of a fossilized animal was usually a guess determined by comparing it to similar living animals. For instance in species that had horns the ones with the larger horns were generally considered to be the males just like the moose, bulls, and big horn sheep of our day. Sometimes larger reptilian animals like T-rex were considered females because many lizards and snakes grow larger females than males. At other times the width of the hips was considered because females would have to lay eggs or give birth and needed wider hips to do the job. However these were educated guesses, not fact until recently. Paleontologists at the Museum of the Rockies in Montana devised a way to tell for sure if their dinosaurs were wearing the pants of the family or a skirt. They studied the thighbones of several specimens to see if they could find evidence of medullary bone, a substance that is found in female birds that gives them the calcium and other compounds needed to create egg shells. Sure enough the first specimen they tested, named Bob, was discovered to in fact be a Bobbette.


What did they sound like?

When parasaurolophus was first discovered paleontologists thought his long head crest was used as a snorkel so he could swim under water. This was some imaginative speculation but was completely wrong. Further discoveries showed the crest had no hole in the top that would allow for such a use and future generations of paleontologists realized this animal was not an animal that lived in or near the water either. So what was the head crest for? As it turns out it was a horn. With the help of expanding computer technology paleontologists were able to recreate the call these dinosaurs likely made to each other.

Recently cricket fossils from the Jurassic era were studied in order to discover what they sounded like. Just like modern day crickets they may have created noise using something called a stridulating organ. These crickets sounded much different than today's with very high frequency pings that only lasted for one note.

The Call of a Parasaurolophus

Awkward Adolescence...

Some dinosaurs may have appeared so different as babies and adolescents that they have been identified as completely different species than their adult counterparts. Baby triceratops for instance hatched with little nubs instead of horns and frilled ridges around their head crest that would later disappear as they got older. We know triceratops of all ages look different because we've found them all in herds. This isn't so easy when you're looking at a dinosaur that is not found in herds of different ages.

Dracorex Hogwartsia sounds like a joke name but it is a real and stunning animal whose head could very easily be confused with that of a dragon. There is debate about whether or not it is its own species or is just the awkward teenage stage of a pachyecephalosaurus.

Dracorex hogwartsia may have been an adolescent pachycephalosaurus.
Dracorex hogwartsia may have been an adolescent pachycephalosaurus.
pachycephalosaurus
pachycephalosaurus

More by this Author


Comments 12 comments

Mhatter99 profile image

Mhatter99 3 years ago from San Francisco

Thank you for this. If you want to hold real dinosaur bones, come to my house. My son is a "bone head" (dinosaur specialist).


Theophanes profile image

Theophanes 3 years ago from New England Author

Ah, yes, we have own curios cabinet here. No dinosaur bones but there are certainly a few interesting fossils nonetheless, some we dug ourselves! I would have done anything to become a paleontologist when I was young. I am afraid that just wasn't in the cards for me but I still very much enjoy it. Don't let your son's passion ever die, it is a wonderfully expanding field of science. :)


nicomp profile image

nicomp 3 years ago from Ohio, USA

"Sue was already a sensation having shown evidence of living past a leg injury that would have made hunting impossible (thus proving she had at the very least a mate feeding her, if not an entire pack.) "

This is a use of the word 'proving' that I haven't seen before.


Theophanes profile image

Theophanes 3 years ago from New England Author

....I do not understand what you mean. A severely injured animal cannot hunt for itself. In order to live long enough for a broken leg to heal it would have had to be fed by a mate or another animal from its pack. Or are you trying to point out some grammatical issue?


That Grrl profile image

That Grrl 3 years ago from Barrie, Ontario, Canada

So much of what we "know" about dinosaurs is based on our own perceptions, our own stereotypical beliefs. I enjoy watching documentaries about prehistory but I sometimes get annoyed with all the presumptions. "I'm sure they had this horn for mating..." In reality it could have been for digging bugs out of the sand as far as anyone really knows. I know the scientists can't avoid putting their own view of the world into their research, but this is why we should never fully believe anything from just one person or group.


Theophanes profile image

Theophanes 3 years ago from New England Author

This is absolutely true. Even as a child I liked listening to the rogue theories more than the traditional ones. How delighted I always was when proof of them came to light. :)


nicomp profile image

nicomp 3 years ago from Ohio, USA

If the feathered dino lived its life in the treetops and glided, how did it get back up into the treetops?


Theophanes profile image

Theophanes 3 years ago from New England Author

Nicomp, the feathered dinosaurs still had claws on their back feet and where the bend in their wing is. They probably would have climbed much like a gliding squirrel does today.


nicomp profile image

nicomp 3 years ago from Ohio, USA

What happened to the first feathered dino that jumped out of a tree? Did the wings, the feathers, the neuro-muscular systems, the depth perception, and the instinct to glide all evolve in parallel?


Theophanes profile image

Theophanes 3 years ago from New England Author

nicomp can I ask you an honest question? Why are you commenting on my articles? It's obvious you don't want to learn anything from me. It's obvious you are going to disagree with everything I say, so why are you bothering even clicking?

Do I have a gun to your head telling you you must read and comment on my articles? Does someone else?? Am I misleading you by titling these things ambiguously? Did I accidentally title this article "HEY YOU! EVOLUTION CRITIC! OVER HERE!"? Because I certainly don't remember that.

I am not God. I do not know everything. Nor can I teach someone something when *they don't want to learn.* If you are trying to teach me a lesson you are failing. I am not going to read any of your comments and suddenly go, "Oh my God! You're right! God really did make poodles on the fifth day! And Chihuahuas and Bonobos and dolphins and tape worms! It all makes sense now!!"

If you are trying to make me look like an idiot by all means continue to do so. I have done nothing but answer your questions on each of these articles politely and with tact. All you've done is try to drag me down and in the process made your depth of character well known to all. You won't see me commenting on your articles. You know why? Because I do not need to make myself feel better by trying to drag others down to my level. Besides this I know you have the right to believe whatever you want but conversely I also know that I live in a country where I can believe whatever I want and I plan on continuing to do so.

Now unless you answer my first question fucking brilliantly I am no longer going to reply to anything you post on any of my articles. I have run out of patience with you. GOODBYE.


nicomp profile image

nicomp 3 years ago from Ohio, USA

To answer your first question... I am commenting because someone has to point out the logical fallacies in this line of thought. If you want me to go away, just delete my comment. I will get the message.

On the other hand, if you want to follow me on my quest for knowledge, feel free to try to answer my questions.


Theophanes profile image

Theophanes 3 years ago from New England Author

If you really want to go on a quest for knowledge know this: I believe in evolution because it makes logical sense to me and also evolution is a slow step by step process. No, some dinosaur didn't sit in a tree, think long and hard until feathers sprung out, and then take a flying leap to invent perfect flight. I am not claiming this happened, nor am I claiming to have every answer. All I know is what science currently knows.

There are GREAT articles, even books, out there about the evolution of feathers. How they went from down feathers to flight feathers. How we can see their growth today with microscopes and yes - how dinosaurs came to fly by flapping their wings in the same swimming-like motion they may have used to catch prey, likely bugs, with their hands/arms. All these things did eventually come together but it wasn't in one animal and it wasn't instantaneous. Nothing in nature works like that.

With that I am off for the night to ponder all the "logical fallacies" that I have come to believe in.

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.


    Click to Rate This Article
    working