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Hyderabad: When the first dinosaur bone was described in 1676, it was thought to come from an elephant. Over a century later, scientists realised such fossils came from a creature they named Megalosaurus, portrayed as a sort of stocky, overgrown lizard. Then, in 1842, anatomist Richard Owen recognised Megalosaurus as part of a whole new group of animals, which he named Dinosauria, or ‘Terrible Lizards.’
Since then, around 700 different dinosaur species have been described, with more to be found.

Myth 1: Dinosaurs were all big

The name dinosaur tends to evoke images of giants – and certainly many were very large. Tyrannosaurus rex was around 12 metres long and weighed more than five tonnes, the size of an elephant. Long-necked, plant-eating sauropods grew to titanic proportions.

The Argentinosaurus size has been estimated at 30 metres in length and 80 tonnes in weight.

But not all dinosaurs were giants. Horned dinosaur Protoceratops was the size of a sheep. Velociraptor was the size of a golden retriever. Recent years have seen an explosion in the number of small species discovered, such as the cat-sized raptor Hesperonychus, the rabbit-sized plant-eater Tianyulong, and the quail-sized insect-eater Parvicursor.

The smaller species were probably more common than their giant cousins.

Myth 2: Dinosaurs were all scaly

When dinosaurs were first discovered, it seemed obvious that because they were related to crocodiles and lizards, they must have been scaly. And many dinosaurs – including duckbills, horned dinosaurs, sauropods, and armoured dinosaurs – do preserve scale impressions. But in 1997 a small carnivorous dinosaur named Sinosauropteryx was found to be covered with a soft, fuzzy down. Since then, feathers have been discovered on the plant-eating ornithopods, fanged heterodontosaurs, and many families of carnivorous dinosaurs including Tyrannosauridae — meaning that T rex was probably covered in feathers, not scales.

Myth 3: Dinosaurs were all green and brown

Early paintings of dinosaurs showed them in shades of grey, green, and brown. But in reality, the colours would have been much more vibrant. Studies of dinosaur scales and feathers have revealed traces of melanin, the same pigment that lends colour to lizard scales, bird feathers and our hair. Analyses show that dinosaurs came in a wide variety of colours including black, white, and ginger. A few show-offs even had an iridescent sheen to their feathers.

Many dinosaurs were boldly patterned with spots and stripes, white bellies and dark backs. Some of these patterns probably evolved as camouflage, to help dinosaurs hide from predators and prey. But bright colours and conspicuous patterns would have served to draw the eye of potential mates, much like the tail of a peacock.

Myth 4: Dinosaurs were bad parents

Most reptiles like sea turtle simply bury their eggs and walk away, leaving their offspring to fend for themselves as best they can. Dinosaurs were once thought to use the same strategy. But, that’s wrong. Living dinosaur relatives – birds and crocodiles – guard their eggs and their young, so it’s a reasonable assumption that the dinosaurs did as well. And there’s evidence of this. When expeditions to the Gobi Desert found a dinosaur atop a clutch of eggs, it was assumed to have died while plundering the nest. It was named Oviraptor, or egg thief. But then more skeletons were found atop clutches of eggs, sitting on them like brooding birds. It turns out Oviraptor didn’t eat eggs —- it was guarding them.

Myth 5: Dinosaurs were doomed to extinction

Dinosaur extinction was long blamed on some failure of the dinosaurs themselves, a failure to adapt to the changing environment. In reality, dinosaurs were diverse for more than 100 million years with fossils found in North and South America, Asia, Europe, Africa, and even Antarctica. Fossils show that dinosaurs remained widespread, common and diverse until 66 million years ago, when an asteroid struck the Earth. Debris from the impact blocked out the sun and plunged the world into darkness. The disappearance of the dinosaurs wasn’t fated – it was a cosmic accident. If the asteroid had deviated by a fraction of a degree, dinosaurs would be still ruling the planet – and not us.

Myth 6: Dinosaurs all became extinct

The asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs, almost. A handful of small feathered dinosaurs, probably less than a dozen species, survived. They were birds — small, flying cousins of T. rex and Velociraptor. And they not only survived but thrived, evolving into some ten thousand species of birds.

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Author: Howard Caldwell