Decades of Divergence in Dino Depiction

Many of my paleontology projects are based on the question of what we think dinosaurs looked like, and why.  We only know about dinosaurs from their fossils, which mostly only show their bones, and are often missing many pieces and are badly deteriorated.  However, when we see pictures of dinosaurs in the media, we see them as fully-realized animals with skin and colors and so on.  How have we gotten to the point where we have come up with such images?

The short answer is that some illustrators work directly with scientists to help flesh out their images, and others do plenty of primary research.  But others just base their drawings on what they’ve seen, and those images quickly become more and more divorced from the science, just like a game of Telephone.  And of course, even the original visual conceptualizations are best guesses, based on those partial fossils.

Not only that, but the science changes over time, with new ideas evolving as new fossils are found!

I have often surveyed everyday people about what they think dinosaurs looked like.  In this case, I went to the printed record, and did a morphological analysis of every image of just three dinosaurs–Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops, and Stegosaurus–that can be found among all my paleontology books.  This includes books aimed at all ages, and books that are both entertainment-oriented and scientifically-oriented.

Future versions will do the same for other popular dinosaurs.

This resulted in a huge data pool.  Here is the final analysis, which is in poster form.  It’s been reduced a bit in resolution to fit here but should be fine for these purposes.  Check it out!


Some of the earlier information, while I was still in the process of analyzing it, can be seen below.


Here is the complete data pool, which allows you to see all the characteristics I listed for each image.  I looked both at their visual characteristics (for instance, their color, or the number of plates a Stegosaurus has) as well as their contextual details (for instance, were they shown fighting with another dinosaur, or were they presented in an extinction scenario).

I did an aesthetic-cladistic analysis of the dinosaur images, as I had done earlier for the Clay-dograms, with these sample results.  Each dinosaur (Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops, and Stegosaurus) has two charts, one breaking down the morphology of their images, and the other breaking down their contextual information.

The visual characteristics:

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The contextual characteristics:

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