What would surprise us most if we saw living dinosaurs?
That they look nothing like what we expect.
We have an ingrained view of what dinosaurs look like, based on years of speculative art, backed up by film and TV. It feels like we have a consensus about what they would have looked like, but that’s actually because the first people to draw them influenced everyone who came after them, and those views have created a cycle of drawing them looking a particular way.
The thing is, all of our reconstructions are based on taking the skeletons, adding muscle where it would have had to be, and then stretching flesh over the whole thing. That may sound logical, but we have no idea what their fat, soft tissue, or other features may have looked like. Paleontologist and artist Darren Naish has pointed out that, if we applied the same techniques to modern animals, they’d be unrecognizable. Here’s his reconstruction of what paleontologists would think an elephant, horse and rhinoceros looked like:
Crazy, right? Elephants are largely defined by their trunks and floppy ears. But you have a hundred-million-year-old skeleton, none of that survives.
In recent years, there’s been a growing consensus that many dinosaurs had feathers, which is a major shock to most of us who grew up on dinosaur art and movies, and it draws focus to the fact that we’ve always assumed a green or gray reptilian skin, but there were probably a wealth of features that we have no evidence for.
Here are some examples of purely speculative images which would still be completely consistent with the fossilized skeletons we have:
The point is not that any of these images are accurate, it’s that these are just as likely to be accurate as our traditional imagery. To a near certainty, any dinosaur we saw in real life would look completely different from what we expect.
To close, here’s an a comic from XKCD, making another point about the limits of what we can learn from fossils.
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