Eras of Life
 Dinosaur Evolution
 Feathered Dinosaurs
 Weird Dinosaurs
 Prehistoric Sea Monsters



Dinosaurs are animals that dominated the terrestrial ecosystem for over 100 million years. Non-avian dinosaurs became extinct at the end of the Cretaceous period, 65 million years ago. Knowledge about dinosaurs comes from both fossil and nonfossil records, including fossilized bones, feces, trackways, gastroliths, feathers, impressions of skin, internal organs and "soft tissues." Since the first dinosaur was recognized in the 19th century, their mounted skeletons have become major attractions at museums around the world. Dinosaurs have become a part of world culture and remain consistently popular, especially among children. They have been featured in best-selling books and blockbuster films such as Jurassic Park, and new discoveries are regularly covered by the media. The term is also used informally to describe any prehistoric reptile, such as the pelycosaur Dimetrodon, the winged pterosaurs, and the aquatic ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, and mosasaurs, though none of these are dinosaurs. The on-going dinosaur renaissance began in the 1970s and was triggered, in part, by John Ostrom's discovery of Deinonychus -- an active, vicious predator that may have been warm-blooded (homeothermic), in marked contrast to the prevailing image of dinosaurs as sluggish cold-blooded reptiles. Vertebrate paleontology has also become a global science, with major new discoveries in previously unexploited regions, including South America, Madagascar, Antarctica, and most significantly the amazingly well-preserved feathered dinosaurs in China, which have further solidified the link between dinosaurs and their living descendants, the 9,000+ species of modern birds. The widespread application of cladistics, which rigorously analyzes the relationships between biological organisms, has also proved tremendously useful in classifying dinosaurs, which are still known from an incomplete fossil record.
What is a dinosaur?

The superorder or clade "Dinosauria" was formally named by the English scientist Richard Owen in 1842. The term is a combination of the Greek words deinos ("terrible" or "fearfully great" or "formidable") and sauros ("lizard" or "reptile"). Contrary to popular perception, the name was chosen to express Owen's awe at the size and majesty of the extinct animals, not out of fear or trepidation at their size and formidable arsenal.

Dinosaurs are extremely varied. Some are herbivorous, others carnivorous; some bipedal, others quadrupedal. (For details on the various types of dinosaurs, see Classification below.)

There is an almost universal consensus among paleontologists that birds are the descendants of theropod dinosaurs. Using the strict cladistical definition that all descendants of a single common ancestor are related, modern birds are dinosaurs and dinosaurs are, therefore, not extinct:
Only a tiny percentage of animals ever fossilize, and most of these remain buried in the earth. As a result, the smallest and largest dinosaurs will probably never be discovered. Even among those specimens that are recovered, few are known from complete skeletons, and impressions of skin and soft tissue are rare. Reconstructing a skeleton by comparing the size and morphology of bones to those of similar, better-known species is inexact, and restoring the muscles and other organs is, at best, educated guesswork.
While the largest and smallest dinosaurs will probably remain unknown, and comparisons between existing specimens is imprecise, it is clear that, as a group, dinosaurs were large. By dinosaur standards the sauropods were gigantic. The smallest sauropods were larger than anything else in their habitat, and the largest were an order of magnitude more massive than anything that has ever walked the Earth.


Main article: Dinosaur classification

Dinosaurs are archosaurs, like modern crocodilians. These are set apart by having diapsid skulls, having two holes where jaw muscles attach, called temporal fenestrae. Birds and most reptiles are diapsids; mammals, with only one temporal fenestra, are called synapsids; and turtles, with no temporal fenestra, are anapsids. Dinosaurs also have teeth that grow from sockets (an archosaur characteristic) rather than as direct extensions of the jaw bones, as well as various other characteristics. Within this group, the dinosaurs are set apart most noticeably by their gait. Instead of legs that sprawl out to the side, as found in lizards and crocodylians, they have legs held directly under their body.

Many other types of reptiles lived at the same time as the dinosaurs. Some of these are commonly, but incorrectly, thought of as dinosaurs: these include plesiosaurs (which are not closely related to the dinosaurs) and pterosaurs, which developed separately from reptilian ancestors in the late Triassic.

Dinosaurs are divided into two major orders, the Saurischia and the Ornithischia, on the basis of hip structure.

Dinosaurs split off from their archosaur ancestors during the Triassic period.

The first known dinosaurs appeared approximately 230 Ma, about 20 million years after the Permian-Triassic extinction event wiped out about 70 percent of all biological diversity on the planet. A few lines of primitive dinosaurs diversified rapidly after the Triassic, and quickly expanded until they filled most of the vacant ecological niches. During the reign of the dinosaurs, which encompassed the ensuing Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, nearly every terrestrial animal larger than 1 m in length (that we know of) was a dinosaur.

The Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event, 65 Ma at the end of the Cretaceous, caused the extinction of all dinosaurs except for the line that had already led to the first birds.




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