The fossil of a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton known as “Stan” has just been sold for the record-breaking price of £24.6m . What is it that makes dinosaurs so fascinating?
What are dinosaurs?
Dinosaurs were the main animals on Earth for more than 140 million years. They were reptiles similar to lizards. In fact, the word “dinosaur” comes from two Greek words meaning “terrible lizard”.
Dinosaurs evolved into all shapes and sizes. Some were about the same size as a chicken, while others were over 20m tall.
When did we find them?
Nobody knows when the first dinosaur fossils were found. Ancient civilisations probably uncovered them without realising what they had found. Chinese writings from 2,000 years ago describe “dragon” bones. Modern scientists think they must be referring to dinosaur fossils.
The first dinosaur fossil as discovered near Oxford in the 1600s and was named “Megalosaurus” by William Buckland in 1824. In 1841, Sir Richard Owen (1804–1892), the founder of the Natural History Museum, grouped together several different specimans, calling them “dinosauria”.
What did they eat?
Dinosaurs are famous for being dangerous and aggressive. It’s true that some dinosaurs ate small lizards and eggs. Others hunted other dinosaurs or scavenged dead animals. But most of them were herbivores.
Scientists find out what dinosaurs ate by testing the rock where they find the fossils. In most cases, they find clues showing that thousands of of trees, ferns and rushes grew alongside dinosaurs. This lush landscape provided a vegetarian feast.
Could they fly?
Ancient dinosaurs could not, but they have modern-day relatives we all recognise – birds. All birds you see now are the only dinosaurs that survive today.
There was a different group of reptiles called pterosaurs that could fly. The largest was Quetzalcoatlus. It stood as tall as a giraffe with an enormous beak, strong legs and a long neck. It had a wingspan of nearly 11m – the same as a small plane.
How many dinosaurs are there?
We have discovered over 700 different species of dinosaur. But the palaeontologists who study them think that there are many more still to be found.
At the moment, we find about 50 new species every year. New technology means scientists can discover more about what dinosaurs looked like, too. They can also use the technology to find much smaller fossils and learn about different creatures – like insects and tiny lizards – that lived alongside the dinosaurs.
How did they die?
Around 66 million years ago, a huge asteroid smashed into Earth. It crash landed near Mexico. Scientists suspect that this made the sky so dusty that the sunshine could no longer reach the ground. Earth became colder. Plants and animals died out.
Scientists now think that the asteroid also caused hundreds of volcanoes to erupt. They guess that these massive eruptions could have added to the extinction of these amazing creatures.
- If it were possible to bring dinosaurs back to life, would you go to a wildlife park to see them?
- Imagine you are the first to find a new dinosaur. Draw a picture of what it would look like and create a list of facts about it, including what it ate and how big it was. Don’t forget to give it a name, too!
- An animal with dry scales or hard plates on its skin. Most reptiles lay eggs with soft, leathery shells. Lizards and crocodiles are reptiles. They are cold-blooded, meaning their blood temperature changes, depending on the air or water around it.
- The remains or trace of a living animal or plant from a long time ago. Fossils are found buried in earth or rock.
- Searched for and discovered dead animals. An animal that scavenges is called a scavenger.
- A herbivore is an animal that only feeds on plants. Carnivores eat meat. Humans are omnivores, meaning they eat both plants and meat.
- They were distant cousins of dinosaurs. The word has a silent “p”, meaning it is pronounced, “Terr-uh-saw.”
- A group of animals, plants or other living things that all have the same characteristics . Humans make up one species, for example.
- People who study a prehistoric species. The branch of science is called palaeontology.
- A large chunk of rock and metal in outer space that circles the sun and is mostly found between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars. The size of an asteroid can vary from very tiny to six hundred miles across.