It really is amazing how archeologists and paleontologists can come up with so much information about the past and particularly about what dinosaurs looked like just based on the fossils that are found at obscure locations. We all have very common ideas of what dinosaurs look like. We know the Tyrannosaurs Rex, the Brontosaurs and many others because those images have been used in movies, TV shows, kids programs, cartoons and even breakfast cereals.
But when you think about it, how did anyone come up with those images? There were no cameras back then. Even if cavemen (or cave women) did drawings on the cave walls, who knows if they got it right? After all, when you are running away from a dinosaur trying not to be eaten, it is difficult to get a real good picture of what is chasing you. But universally those images are accepted as true. How did we get them? Paleontologists are able to draw conclusions about the most amazing amount of detail about what dinosaurs looked like, how they lived, what they ate and how they died and they do it all simply using fossils which are nothing more than the bones left behind for millions of years that we find and study.
The process of letting the facts about the past come out of fossils starts before the fossils are ever taken to a laboratory or a museum. It starts at the excavation site as the bones are uncovered. Any movie or documentary about what goes on at an archeological dig will show that scientists who devote themselves to this task take painstaking efforts to uncover the fossils in place and study them and photograph them thoroughly before they are moved. By understanding how the fossils relate to each other within the animal and to other fossilized dinosaurs nearby, paleontologists can discover vast amounts of factual information about the not long gone beasts and what they looked like and how they lived.
Footprints left behind by giant dinosaurs are also helpful in determining facts about the shape of the animal and how it walked and what it looked like. Dinosaurs that walked on two legs had different prints than four legged ones. The size of the print as well as the number of goes and the shape of the foot tell a lot about the body that was supported. These footprints can even tell if the dinosaur could run and how fast. There is an amazing amount that can be learned just from footprints.
When working with actual bones, the size of the jaw of a dinosaur as well as the shape of the mouth and the way the teeth set in the mouth reveal dozens of facts about what the head of the animal looked like as well as what it ate and how it hunted. Everything from the indentations in the teeth and bones to fossilized “droppings” yield encyclopedias of information about these ancient species. It’s a fascinating area of work that is fun to learn more about. The more we learn about how science helps us know about ancient history, the better we can grasp what we are learning and be better users of science ourselves, even if we are not finding out fun facts about dinosaurs.