Why we like to believe that dinosaurs were scaly

Model of T-Rex at the Natural History Museum, London Image copyright The trustees of NHM London

Once thought to be terrifying, scaly lizards, it now seems dinosaurs were actually more like birds. But not everyone's ready to accept their new image, writes Mary Colwell.

"All Brontosauruses are thin at one end, much, much thicker in the middle and then thin again at the far end," declared the pedantic Miss Anne Elk in the famous Monty Python sketch more than 40 years ago. Miss Elk's observation still holds fast, but many of our other opinions about dinosaurs have changed.

The word "dinosaur" is made from the combination of two Greek words, "deinos" which means terrible or fearfully great, and "saur" which means lizard. It was first used in 1842 by the palaeontologist Richard Owen who saw some similarities between huge fossil bones and the skeletons of living reptiles.

He suggested "establishing a distinct tribe or sub-order of Saurian Reptiles, for which I would propose the name of Dinosauria".

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Image caption Conceptual artwork of a feathered Velociraptor attacking an ancestor of the bird, Archaeopteryx
Image copyright Science Photo Library
Image caption Gigantoraptor lived 70 million years ago in what is now Mongolia - it was about 8m long

As bones were unearthed and assembled dinosaurs emerged from the darkness of the past into the glaring light of the burgeoning science of geology. They presented a world that was extraordinary and terrifying.

Some were so huge they would have towered over buildings. Others had teeth that were larger and more deadly than those of anything alive. These monsters fired the imagination of the fossil hunters.

Owen teamed up with Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, a renowned British sculptor, to produce a Victorian Jurassic Park in Crystal Palace Park in London, which still exists today. Life-size models of the dinosaurs were shown crawling out of the water and plodding through the vegetation. So huge were these creatures that Owen ostentatiously held a British Association for the Advancement of Science dinner inside an Iguanodon.

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But there was plenty of controversy, even in the early days. Uncertainty reigned over the posture of the Iguanodon. Did its legs support it like an elephant so that its body was off the ground, or were they more splayed like a crocodile? No-one was sure, so they made both models.

Both were wrong. We know today that its hind legs were bigger and stronger than its forelimbs and it often stood upright on two legs, especially when running.

What is more, horn-like structures were often found alongside Iguanodon fossils. These were assumed to be rhinoceros-type horns and were displayed on the animals' noses. More recent fossils show they were thumb spikes that were probably used for fighting.

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Image caption Caudipteryx had feathers for insulation and maybe display

In North America three-toed tracks found in sandstone in Connecticut resembled those of a large bird and it was assumed they were made by an extinct type of turkey or stork-like creature. Geologist Edward Hitchcock was entranced by these "turkey tracks" and published a beautifully haunting poem, The Sandstone Bird, in the magazine The Knickerbocker in 1836. In it he pleaded with the bird to reveal itself from the rocks.

Bird of sandstone era, wake! / From thy deep dark prison break. / Spread thy wings upon our air, / Show thy huge strong talons here: / Let them print the muddy shore / As they did in days of yore.

Pre-adamic bird, whose sway / Ruled creation in thy day, / Come obedient to my word, / Stand before Creation's Lord.

In the poem, the giant bird appears to the solitary geologist and peers around at the 19th Century world. It sees with dismay that the earth is now ruled by puny, quarrelsome man. It laments:

Sure 'tis a place for punishment designed, / And not the beauteous happy spot I loved. / These creatures here seem discontented, sad: / They hate each other and they hate the world, / I can not, will not live in such a spot. / I freeze, I starve, I die: with joy I sink, / To my sweet slumbers with the noble dead.

Strangely, and suddenly the monster sank, / Earth op'ed and closed her jaws, and all was still.

By 1870 it was shown that the tracks were caused by small, three-toed dinosaurs that ran on their hind legs.

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Image caption A Dromaeosaur fossil with feathers - this small, fast-running dinosaur was found in China

Much intellectual blood has been shed in the corridors of paleontological research institutes over the years as evidence has been amassed to show that dinosaurs were highly varied in size and behaviour, and more like birds than reptiles.

"All the evidence is that dinosaurs were warm-blooded," says Mike Benton, professor of palaeontology at Bristol University. "When you look at the bone histology [structure] you see they had growth patterns and replacement of bone very like mammals and birds… Many if not most dinosaurs had feathers." Many of those feathers were coloured ginger and white and black.

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Image caption Anchiornis - a small, non-avian, feathered dinosaur that lived about 160 million years ago

It may be hard to swallow, but Tyrannosaurus-Rex, the fearsome predator that seems to be all teeth and bad attitude, could have sported a jaunty tuft of plumes. Perhaps also Dippy the Dinosaur, the huge replica skeleton of Diplodocus that has impressed visitors to the Natural History Museum in London for 100 years, was covered in soft down. "The medium-to-small dinosaurs all had feathers - the giant ones had shed feathers by the time they got to adult size," says Benton.

Aficionados of old films will remember the famous sequence in One Million Years BC, produced in 1966, when Raquel Welch, dressed only in a fur bikini, is chased across a barren landscape by a huge slavering dinosaur. Would that have been so scary if the pursuing monster had been feathered? And what about the Velociraptors in Jurassic World - why don't they have feathers?

Will Hollywood ever change with the new science and portray dinosaurs as being more like a blue tit than a terrible lizard?

"I don't think Hollywood would have permitted that," says John Professor John O Maoilearca, professor of film and television at Kingston University. "I don't think they would have allowed feathered animals to be the monstrous creatures. There's something about feathers that is just a bit comical."

It seems we want our dinosaurs, in scary films at least, to stay as fearful lizards. We want them stuck in the past. Or maybe in the future they will become comic characters instead of monsters. Perhaps the Flintstones pet dinosaur Dino, with its sprout of feathers and bright colour, was closer to the mark than we realised.

Image copyright ALAMY

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