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What are Some Animals Commonly Mistaken for Dinosaurs?

Michael Anissimov
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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Several animals are commonly mistaken for dinosaurs. This is because these animals may be superficially similar to dinosaurs in that they are also reptilian and large, or lived at the same time as dinosaurs, but are not part of superorder Dinosauria. These animals include pelycosaurs like Dimetrodon(sail-backed reptiles that lived over 50 million years before dinosaurs became abundant), pterosaurs (flying reptiles that coexisted with the dinosaurs), plesiosaurs, pliosaurs (long-necked aquatic reptiles), ichythosaurs (another aquatic reptile with a fish-shaped body), and mosasaurs (huge aquatic reptiles that are the closest relatives of living snakes).

The official definition of dinosaur encompasses all erect-limbed archosaurs the relatives of the sprawl-limbed archosaurs, the crocodilians. So, in a sense, dinosaurs can be thought of as upright-standing crocodilians. However, this lineage never evolved to fly in the air or swim in the sea. Instead, these niches were occupied by other diapsid (two-holed skull) reptile lineages, especially plesiosaurs and pliosaurs. Towards the end of the Age of the Dinosaurs, ichthyosaurs and mosasaurs evolved and lived in the seas as well. Plesiosaurs existed in the seas for almost as long as dinosaurs existed on the land.

One reptile group that evolved at almost the same time as the first dinosaurs were the pterosaurs, formerly known as pterodactyls, flying reptiles that eventually developed wingspans as large as 10 m (33 ft). Among them were the largest flying animals of all time, like Quetzalcoatlus and Hatzegopteryx, though these wingspans were not typical, and the largest pterosaurs only evolved shortly before the end of the Cretaceous, when all dinosaurs went extinct.

Another important group sometimes confused with dinosaurs are the pterosaurs, sail-backed reptiles that lived in the Permian period, about 50 million years before the first dinosaurs walked the Earth. The pelycosaurs could grow up to 3 1/2 meters (11 ft) in length, though most were much smaller about 1 meter (3 ft) long. Pelycosaurs and other synapsids were only the second major group of tetrapods to dominate terrestrial ecosystems, after basal reptiles and giant amphibians that lived during the Late Carboniferous and Early Permian. Therapsids (Permian/Triassic) were the third, archosauromorphs (Early Triassic) were the fourth, and dinosaurs were only the fifth.

Frequently Asked Questions

What modern animals are often confused with dinosaurs?

Modern animals like the Komodo dragon, cassowary, and alligators are frequently mistaken for dinosaurs due to their prehistoric appearances. The Komodo dragon's size and scales evoke images of theropod dinosaurs, while the cassowary's crest and stance resemble certain species of dinosaurs. Alligators, with their ancient lineage and reptilian features, also conjure up dinosaur comparisons.

Why do people mistake certain birds for dinosaurs?

People often mistake birds for dinosaurs because birds are, in fact, the direct descendants of theropod dinosaurs. Features such as feathers, which were once thought exclusive to birds, have been discovered in various dinosaur fossils. Birds' beaks and skeletal structures also bear similarities to their dinosaur ancestors, leading to common misconceptions.

Are there any marine animals that are mistaken for dinosaurs?

Yes, marine animals like the coelacanth and certain species of sharks are sometimes mistaken for dinosaurs. The coelacanth, a fish once thought extinct, has ancient roots that date back to the times of dinosaurs, and its discovery in modern times has sparked comparisons. Sharks, with their evolutionary history dating back over 400 million years, also share characteristics with marine dinosaurs.

How do the physical characteristics of reptiles contribute to confusion with dinosaurs?

Reptiles share several physical characteristics with dinosaurs, such as scaly skin, similar egg-laying practices, and sometimes a similar body structure, which can lead to confusion. For instance, the presence of claws and teeth in both reptiles and certain dinosaurs can make it easy for the untrained eye to draw parallels between the two groups.

Can mammals ever be mistaken for dinosaurs, and if so, which ones?

While less common, some mammals with unique features can be mistaken for dinosaurs. The armadillo, with its armored plates, might remind some of the ankylosaurus, a dinosaur known for its protective bony plates. Similarly, the rhinoceros, with its large size and prominent horn, could be likened to the triceratops, although such comparisons are less scientifically grounded.

What role do movies and media play in the misconception of animals as dinosaurs?

Movies and media often play a significant role in perpetuating misconceptions about animals being dinosaurs. Through the use of CGI and special effects, films like "Jurassic Park" have brought dinosaurs to life, inadvertently leading to comparisons with living animals that share certain physical traits. This can blur the lines between fact and fiction for the general public.

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Michael Anissimov
By Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime AllThingsNature contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

Discussion Comments

By MrsPramm — On Apr 29, 2014

@irontoenail - On the one hand, I'm grateful we don't have any dinosaurs around at the moment to terrorize us, but on the other hand, I still wish I could have seen something so massive and beautiful in the flesh.

I guess I'll just have to wait until virtual reality is more advanced and then take my time to rewatch Jurassic Park.

By irontoenail — On Apr 29, 2014

@pastanaga - Well, technically, crocodiles were around when the dinosaurs were as well. They might not have looked exactly like the ones we have now, but from fossils it looks like they were fairly close.

Except that one species, at least, was as large as a bus, so I'm pretty grateful that they don't exist at the moment. I guess the mammals would never have been able to get as far as they did if the dinosaurs didn't face extinction the way they did.

By pastanaga — On Apr 28, 2014

If you want to see a kind of lizard that was alive at the same time as the dinosaurs and is still alive today, you should check out the tuatara of New Zealand. They aren't even real lizards, they are basically their own separate species. And they do kind of look like a miniature dinosaur, even if they are not exactly ferocious.

Michael Anissimov

Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime AllThingsNature contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics,...

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