Dinosaurs have fascinated children and adults alike for over one hundred years. Unlike most scientific terms, the average person probably has a good idea of what ‘dinosaur’ means. Just to be sure, let’s break it down.
Dinosaur breaks down into two parts: dino and –saur. Dino comes from the Greek word ‘deino‘ which means terrible and –saur comes from the Greek word ‘saurus‘ which means lizard. Ergo, literally speaking dinosaur means terrible lizard. However, that is misleading and not altogether true.
Dinosaurs were in fact reptiles, just like lizards, but there are many, many differences between them. If you get down to the nitty gritty, scientists are very particular as to what qualifies as a true dinosaur. Dinosaurs were terrestrial, meaning that they did not fly, like pterosaurs, or swim, like mosasaurs and plesiosaurs. It is important to note that just because a creature has the suffix ‘saur’ in its name does not mean that it is a dinosaur.
Dinosaurs are most easily identified by their pelvis and the way that they walked. For example, many people think that alligators and crocodiles are close dinosaur relatives because they lived at the same time. This is not the case; dinosaurs and alligators used two completely different methods of locomotion. An alligator’s legs are splayed out to either side and it has waddling gait. On the other hand, many dinosaurs were bipedal with their legs directly beneath them and a long tail as counter-balance. Even quadrupedal dinosaurs had legs directly beneath their bodies and didn’t waddle like crocodiles.
When Sir Richard Owen coined the term ‘dinosaur’ in the mid-19th century, dinosaurs were a relatively recent discovery. To Victorian scientists, dinosaur fossils probably did remind them of great and terrible lizards. More recent evidence has solidified dinosaurs’ role as avian ancestors. During the 1990s in China, many dinosaur fossils were found with proto-feathers! To some, it may seem strange that birds are classified in the same clade as dinosaurs when dinosaurs were characterized as being terrestrial. This does not exclude birds because, as descendants, the rules of their ancestors do not apply.
Dinosaurs were complex, fascinating creatures and we still have much to learn about them. To learn more, check out the links below.