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General Dinosaur Information

 Fossil Index

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Tetrapod Skull Design

Two Main Branches of Dinosaur

Tetrapod Feet

Dino Tidbits

Paleobotany and Dinosaurs

Defining A Dinosaur

Common Sauropsid Characteristics

Theropod characteristics

Ornithischian characteristics


Tetrapod Skull Design

Diapsid skull - Two fenestra (holes) behind the orbit developed soon after.  Dinosaurs and birds have an additional fenestra (hole) in front of the orbit.  see "Tetrapod Skull Design"


Two Main Branches of Dinosaur

Ornithischian (means bird hipped)

Hadrosaurs, Pachycephalosaurs, Ceratopsians, Ankylosaurs, and Stegasaurians

Saurischian (means lizard hipped)

Theropods (including birds), Segnosaurs, and Sauropods


Dinosaurs groups are not classified by what they eat, if they walk on two or four legs, or how big they get.  Paleontologists arrange them by the structures of their bones.  For example, in the exclusively herbaceous Ornithischian line there are both bipeds and quadrupeds, but the name means “birdlike pelvis” disclosing one of the group’s major characteristics.  Another similarity among Ornithischians is that most have no front teeth.  Instead they have beaks.  On the other hand, all Saurischian dinosaurs started off as bipedal and carnivorous.  But an early split in the lineage produced the Sauropods and Theropods.  Sauropods are all herbaceous and mostly quadrupedal.  Theropods are all carnivorous bipeds.

The earliest Ornithischian dinosaurs were small bipedal herbivores with long thin arms and long clawed hands.  As Ornithischian evolved, their front limbs lengthened and their hands became more robust allowing them to stand on four legs.  The larger the animal, the more hoof-like the hands became.  Some Ornithischian, like the Ceratopsians, became quadrupeds.  Others, like Hadrosaurs, walked on four legs but ran on two.  All Ornithischians walked on their toes.  Their footprints resemble Theropods but without claws.  They have hoof-like unguals that resemble those of horses.

Hadrosaurs are the only Ornithischians known to have hollow limb bones.  Ornithischian vertebrae are not hollowed out with air passageways as in the Saurischian dinosaurs.

Interestingly birds do not come from the Ornithischian line, which have beaks and birdlike pelvises, but are more closely related to Theropods like T-rex.  The first bird-like reptiles are found mid to late Jurassic.  The best examples are those of the famous Archaeopteryx, a feathered bird with teeth and long tail.  By the Cretaceous, birds developed into modern forms.  They had lost their tail bones, their breast bones enlarged allowing strong flight, and their hand bones fused together.  Today, only a few species of birds have remnants of teeth.


Tetrapod Feet

Plantigrade stance = entire foot (toes to ankle) lands on the ground (like most reptiles and humans)

Semi-digitigrade stance = only the ankle is held off the ground (like T. rex and dogs)

Digitigrade stance = metatarsals are held off the ground (walks on point) (like Sauropods and elephants)


Dino Tidbits

The first nearly complete dinosaur found in the United States is a Hadrosaur, the duck-billed dinosaur.  Found near Haddonfield, New Jersey in 1858 and named Hadrosaurus foulkii.

Very few dinosaurs grew less than 6 feet; the smallest is only 16 inches long.  Mammals, lizards, amphibians, birds, and insects rule the micro world.

The largest dinosaur is a Sauropod, Argentinosaurus huinculensis, at 130 feet long and 110 tons.

Less than 10 new species of dinosaur are named each year.  These often are later reclassified as a variant of another species.

80% of all dinosaurs are known from fewer than 5 specimens.  Of those 50% are known from only one.

The only known descendants of the dinosaurs are the birds.


Paleobotany: Angiosperms and Dinosaurs

The climate of the Mesozoic was hot and humid.  The equator was dryer, sometimes arid.  The poles were not ice bound and dinosaurs lived in temperate jungles on Antarctica.  Since the Pennsylvanian Period, (320 Ma) ferns, horsetails, mosses, cycads, conifers, cypress, and ginkgoes filled the forests.  Herbivorous dinosaurs raked leaves off plants as they walked through the open forests.  They did not chew but had gizzard stones to pulverize the vegetation.  Wood from these plants are laden with indigestible chemicals and resins.  Animals had to eat great quantities of vegetation to obtain sufficient nutrition.  To keep from destroying their habitat, herds had to remain small.

Near the beginning of the Cretaceous a new land plant appeared, the angiosperm.  These flowering trees and shrubs diversified quickly.  The largest known Cretaceous angiosperm trees had a 4” diameter trunk and only 16 feet tall.  They had leaves similar to oaks, poplars, maples, and sycamores.  No grass existed until after the K/T boundary.

As the angiosperm plants diversified, so did the herbaceous dinosaurs.  The end of the Cretaceous saw an explosion of dinosaur species and great herds roamed the continents.  Of all the known species of dinosaurs, almost 50% lived at the end of the Cretaceous.  Scientists credit this spread to the angiosperm, a much better food source.


Defining A Dinosaur

1. Dinosaurs do not have a postfrontal bone in the skull.

2. The sacrum has three or more fused vertebrae.

3. The point where the three hip bones join to support the femur lacks bone in the center. (open acetabulum)

4. The femur has a ball-like head.

5. The Humerus has an elongated crest where the deltopectoral muscle attaches.

6. The tibia has a cnemial crest.

7. The fourth finger of the hand has only three or less phalanges.

8. The astragalus (large ankle bone) has a well-developed ascending process where it fits onto the tibia.

Common Sauropsid Characteristics

 (reptiles, dinosaurs, birds)

1. little tendency for the tooth row to develop specialized regions, a retained primitive feature

2. fore limbs tend to be relatively small and the hind limbs are often much larger

3. rear bones in the lower jaw tend not to become associated with  the ear, a retained primitive feature

Theropod Characteristics: (but not unique to theropods)

1. All are carnivorous.

2. Blade-like teeth with serrated ridges along the margins.

3. Recurved claws taper to a sharp point.

4. Quick long-legged biped.

Theropod Characteristics

1. Extra joint in the lower jaw

2. Prominent processes (epipophyses) on the neck vertebrae

3. Tail is stiffened by elongated prezygapophyses on the vertebrae

4. Scapula is strap-like

5. The pubis bone has expansions to the rear

6. Limb bones are always hollow

7. Humerus is less than half the length of the femur

8. The femur has a shelf-like ridge near the head of for muscle attachment

9. Elongate hand with fingers reduced in size and/or number.

10. Pits (ligament attachment) on the metacarpals in the palm of the hand

Ornithischian Characteristics

1. predentary bone at the front of the lower jaw

2. triangular teeth with the largest tooth in the middle of the tooth row

3. coronoid process behind the tooth row in the lower jaw

4. reduced external/mandibular fenestra


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