Feathers, Luscious Lips and Cake for Days: All the Ways Dinosaurs Looked Different Than You Think
If you asked any seven-year-old at any point since, oh, about 1993 what their favorite animal was, there’s a pretty good chance they’d shout “Dinosaurs!” followed by a series of growls and clawing gestures. And they have a good point: Dinosaurs, as portrayed in blockbuster action movies, are cool as shit. They’re either enormous, looming predators with constantly bared, razor-sharp teeth who swallow bad guys like Xanax but protect children or enormous, looming doofuses who take those children on amazing adventures. Whatever their narrative purpose, they’re always sleek, lizard-like mounds of muscle that would be just as at home in a Marvel movie as a prehistoric theme park.
In reality, though, they probably looked considerably less super, if special in their own way.
For one thing, if you’re a dino enthusiast, you’ve probably known for a long time that plenty of dinosaurs, particularly velociraptors, had feathers. It was a real missed opportunity not to have the unfortunate souls trapped inside Jurassic Park terrorized by vicious, man-size chickens, but possibly an even greater one was having them rescued by a giant Furby, because it turns out a lot of them also had fur. Specimens of the pterosaur, which wasn’t strictly a dino but definitely a saur, have been found to have “tiny structures called pycnofibers” that are “similar to hair or fur,” and in 2020, a new species named Ubirajara jubatus was identified that had a “long mane of fur” trailing behind it like a starlet on a red carpet. Even, yes, members of the tyrannosaur family had “long, hair-like covering.” Debate amongst yourselves whether this means you can have a dinosaur fursona.
Those feathers and fur weren’t always the tasteful neutrals depicted on-screen, either. To really achieve historical accuracy, take those man-size chickens and hit them with a good highlighter palette, because microscopic analysis of the feathers of species most closely related to velociraptors reveals structures suggesting “they were iridescent” with “a metallic sheen, like hummingbirds or peacocks.” It turns out the species Anchiornis looked kind of like a woodpecker, with a very fashionable black, white and red color scheme, and Sinosauropteryx was a ginger boy with a striped tail and a “bandit” mask. In other words, yes, he was a big red raccoon. A species discovered in 2018 named Caihong juji was described as a duck-size hummingbird, with a rainbow of feathers covering its head. If your wildest second-grade dreams involved a combination Pokemon Jurassic Park, you can eliminate one obstacle, because dinosaurs were essentially Pokemon.
A lot of this can be hard to figure out because, in many cases, all we have is bones. That also means that “we may (in cases) have significantly underestimated how fat and flabby some fossil animals were.” Think about it: When robots discover our skeletal remains in 10,000 years, are they going to come up with anything close to the sweet donk gracing your chair? In fact, recreating modern animals based on their skeletons alone often produces images that look like, well, movie monsters. That means we’re probably missing a key part of the dinosaur puzzle in its squishy bits. The T. rex especially was likely much chonkier than we give him credit for. They also gained weight as they aged, eventually developing such fat feet that they couldn’t keep up with their grandkids. Relatable AF.
If a bootylicious T. rex gets your Chuck Tingle-loving motor running, buckle up, because it turns out they also had juicy, kissable lips. Okay, they probably wouldn’t put Kylie Jenner out of business, but they also probably didn’t walk around with a perpetual snarl, as previously believed. According to a 2023 study, T. rex teeth don’t show nearly as much wear and tear as those of other animals without lips, like crocodiles. This suggests they looked more like lizards, with lips to cover their teeth. Update your weird porn accordingly.
All of this paints a much different picture of dinosaurs than we’re used to seeing on green screens and children’s T-shirts. Rather than a hulking, fearsome beast, the residents of the Jurassic World would be just as likely to encounter a smoochable, curvaceous figure draped in feathers and fur in outrageous colors. In other words, Divine. They looked like Divine.
If you decide to take that as inspiration for a drag story hour theme, please invite us. It sounds lit.