Meet the Dinosaurs

The first ones—who lived over 200 million years ago—were small, fast meat-eaters. From them evolved thousands of species that crawled, ran, flew, and sauntered their way across plains and through forests, swamps, and the air.

Museum für Naturkunde, Museum of Brussels, Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales de Madrid, The Field Museum, American Museum of Natural History

Triceratops horridusThe Natural History Museum

With astonishing biodiversity, dinosaurs roamed the planet for 165 million years during the Mesozoic Era, which is divided into three periods: Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous. 

Carnivorous dinosaurs Allosaurus and Elaphrosaurus in the dinosaur hall at MfN by Carola Radke (MfN)Museum für Naturkunde Berlin

Today, museums all over the world honor, preserve, and share the traces these ancient creatures left behind and help us to imagine them alive—roaring, mating, sleeping, and eating.

Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin

Here we are in the Museum für Naturkunde’s Dinosaur Hall. Early in the 1900s, the Museum für Naturkunde (Museum of Natural Science) commissioned work in Tendaguru, Tanzania to excavate fossils.

Between 1909 and 1911, the German paleontologist Werner Janensch and his team uncovered 250 tons of dinosaur fossils. One vivid result of that work was this specimen of Giraffatitan brancai (formerly Brachiosaurus), the highest mounted dinosaur skeletons in the world.

A Jurassic Giant

This dinosaur’s long neck made it look like a giraffe, and its forelegs were longer than its hind legs. The animal may have weighed as much as 30 tons and been about two school buses long. Despite all this flesh and bone, Giraffatitan Brancai had a relatively small brain.

On Land or In the Water?

For decades, paleontologists thought Giraffatitan brancai spent its time submerged in the water and used its nostrils like a snorkel, but current research supports that it was fully terrestrial.

The Tendaguru site revealed exposed shallow sheltered lagoons, so perhaps this giant enjoyed both.

Dinosaurs Gallery, Museum of Brussels

Wow! This vast hall is entirely devoted to dinosaurs. And it’s not just a room full of bones. You can challenge a virtual Pachycephalosaurus or design neck frills for a hadrosaurus.

Many students visit the museum on school trips each year, and exhibits are designed to be not only informative but also fun.

The Bernissart Iguanodons

In April, 1878, in Bernissart, Belgium, a team of coal miners unearthed a huge cache of dinosaur bones. A herd of about thirty iguanodons must have fallen into a ravine millions of years before.

Today, six of these skeletons tower behind glass cases that allow visitors perspectives from all directions.

The Bernissart Fish Fossils

Not only did the coal mine at Bernissart hold iguanodon bones, it also contained well-preserved fish, crocodiles, turtles, a solitary salamander, plant remains, and coprolite (pieces of fossilized dung).

Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales de Madrid

The skeleton of dinosaurs and fossil remains are the protagonists of this area of the exhibition which shows the evolution of the Earth. More than 4,500 million years concentrated on a journey through fossils from all geological eras.

“Dippy”, the skeleton of the Diplodocus carnegii is one of the most outstanding pieces in the museum.

Diplodocus carnegii

The skeleton of the Diplodocus carnegii, known as “Dippy”, come from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (Pittsburgh, USA). This replica was donated by Andrew Carnegie to King Alfonso XIII in 1913. 

Gomphotherium angustidens

The Mastodon Gomphotherium angustidens is one of the most complete specimens from Europe. It was found in a clay quarry in Yuncos (Toledo, Spain).

Gomphotheres had about the size of the current Indian elephant and they had four defences, of which the superior ones were more developed than the inferiors. 

The Field Museum, Chicago

In 1990, fossil hunter Sue Hendrickson made a major fossil discovery in the Black Hills of South Dakota, a discovery that now bears her name. As the largest and best-preserved Tyrannosaurus rex specimen on the planet, Sue was a unique and important find.

The Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois, bought the fossil skeleton for $8.4 million. Despite T. Rex’s reputation as a fierce killer, the skeleton is a favorite among the museum’s permanent exhibits.

Tyrannosaurus rex

Tyrannosaurus rex, or the “king of the tyrant lizards,” was an upright-walking carnivore that scavenged and hunted during the upper Cretaceous period (67 million to 65 million years ago). This iconic predator was native to the what is now western North America.

The Titanosaur in Two Rooms

Because this model of a 122­ foot long titanosaur was too big for its gallery at the American Museum of Natural History, its neck and head extend into the next room, welcoming visitors to the dinosaur halls. 

The Halls of Ornithischian and Saurischian Dinosaurs at the American Museum of Natural History feature about 100 specimens, 85% of which are real fossils.

This is a very small fraction of the museum’s dinosaur collection, which has grown enormously in size and importance since the museum’s first paleontological expedition in 1897. 

From Patagonia to NYC

In 2012, a rancher in the Patagonian region of Argentina reported finding fossils on his land. Working on the site over the next 2 years, a team from the Museo Paleontologico Egidio Feruglio found over 200 bones belonging to six different individual dinosaurs. 

An Eight-Foot Femur

One of the 8-foot femurs, or thigh bones, is among five original fossils that are part of this display. Femurs are often the longest and strongest bones in an animal’s body. A human femur averages about 27% of a person’s total height.

Forelimbs Like Ours

When you imagine dinosaurs, it’s hard to think of them as distant relatives, but when you consider bones such as the scapula, humerus, radius, and ulna, it gets easier. They had them and we have them, along with many animal species with internal skeletons.

An Ancient Battle

The Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda of the American Museum of Natural History presents an imagined prehistoric drama: a Barosaurus rears up, protecting its young against an attacking Allosaurus. 

This Barosaurus is a cast from a real fossil skeleton, one of only two Barosaurus specimens in the world. It is also the tallest free­ standing mounted dinosaur skeleton in the world. 

The Herbivore vs. the Carnivore

Barosaurus was an enormous long-necked, long-tailed herbivore whose fossils were first discovered by a postmistress in Pottsville, South Dakota. Allosaurus was a much smaller bipedal apex predator—it resided at the top of its food chain.

This display inspires visitors to wonder, “Which one would prevail?”

An Ongoing Debate

Are birds really dinosaurs? One section of the dinosaur exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History is titled “Birds: Living Dinosaurs” and explores the evidence to support the link between birds and dinosaurs, including the origin of feathers as extensions of scales.

Recent fossil evidence from China reveals that some dinosaur bodies were covered with filaments that were chemically and structurally similar to modern feathers. 

Common Traits

Like dinosaurs (and reptiles), birds have scales on their feet and legs; their necks are “s” shaped; they nest, lay eggs, and brood; and most significantly, their skeletons resemble those of reptiles in many ways.

One explanation for these shared characteristics is a common ancestor from which these groups descended.

Archaeopteryx, the Missing Link

For decades, paleontologists’ only fossil link between birds and dinosaurs was Archaeopteryx, a hybrid creature with feathered wings but the teeth and long body tail of a dinosaur. In evolutionary terms, this species appeared almost overnight—in just 10 million years.

Were Dinosaurs Warm-Blooded?

The more sluggish metabolisms of so-called cold-blooded creatures means they grow more slowly than so-called warm-blooded creatures. Researchers have studied the rings on fossilized bones to learn how quickly dinosaurs grew.

Conclusions suggest that many dinosaurs were mesotherms, intermediaries between cold-blooded ectotherms and warm-blooded endotherms.

An Astonishing Variety

The term biodiversity seems to have been coined to describe dinosaurs in their heyday. This room at the Senckenberg Naturmuseum in Frankfurt, Germany, contains only a handful of species, but just look at all the shapes and sizes.

Science has identified thousands of dinosaur species and divided them into fifteen major families from armored to frilled to bird-like. Here are just a few.

Triceratops: Three Horns

With a large bony frill and three horns on its stumpy body, this species resembles a modern rhinoceros. Its silhouette is unmistakable, but there is still an ongoing debate about the purpose of those horns: defense, courtship, or both?

Pterosaur: Winged Lizards

The earliest vertebrates known to have evolved powered flight, these winged reptiles are not quite dinosaurs because they are more closely related to birds than to any living reptiles. Pterosaurs’ “wings” were formed by membranes of skin and tissue, much like the wings of bats.

Diplodocus: Gentle Giants

Their name means “double beam,” which refers to the double-beamed bones in their extremely long tails. For many years, diplodocus was the longest dinosaur known.

A Fearsome Face

It’s hard to imagine a more frightening face than that of Triceratops. Its massive head made up a full third of its body length, and the largest skull found was 8.2 feet long!

Its two brow horns often twisted and lengthened during its lifetime reaching about three feet in length, making it look even more gruesome as it aged.

Stegosaurus: Live Armored Trucks

Between 17 and 22 separate plates lined the spine of these armored beasts. The plates were not attached to their skeletons but were part of their skin. The largest plates were two feet wide and two feet tall.

The Most Complete Stegosaurus

This is the most complete Stegosaurus fossil skeleton ever found, missing only its left foreleg, the base of its tail and a few other small bones.

Because all of the bones in this fossil belonged to a single animal, the specimen shows better than ever before what Stegosaurus would have looked like in life, around 150 million years ago.

An Ancient Vegetarian

Small blunt teeth and a wide, barrel-shaped body show that Stegosaurus fed on plants. It would have swallowed most of its food whole, relying on a massive gut filled with microbes to help digest plant matter. 

Stegosaurus would have used its fearsome spiked tail to defend itself against predators. Its back plates may have been used for display or temperature control.

An Extinct Giant

Despite its size, some features of the hips suggest this individual was only a young adult when it died. Stegosaurus lived in a land of floodplains marked by wet and dry seasons.

Over time this land became the Morrison Formation, a rich source of dinosaur fossils in western North America.

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