Everything you think you know about dinosaurs is wrong

dinosaurs-584.jpg A man looks at the prehistoric dinosaur called Giganotosaurus at an exhibit in Toronto. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

First aired on Quirks & Quarks (5/4/13)

beloved_brontosaurus-thumb-300x452-295085.jpgPeople tend to have a special place for dinosaurs in their hearts; they're a fixture in children's books and movies and continue to haunt the imagination as we age. It's not necessarily the scientific facts about dinosaurs that stick with us, but the majestic images that we grew up with that remain. If you close your eyes you can picture the magnificent Brontosaurus. The only problem is that scientists have known for more than a century that there is no such thing as a Brontosaurus -- what we call a Brontosaurus is actually a whole other species called an Apatosaurus!

This isn't the only myth we have about dinosaurs. Correcting the dinosaur myths of our childhood has become a bit of an obsession for Brian Switek, an American science writer. So much that he wrote a book called: My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the road with old bones, new science and our favourite dinosaurs. Switek spoke with Bob McDonald on Quirks & Quarks about the problem with the way popular culture depicts dinosaurs. It's not only the Brontosaurus that is wrongfully depicted; pretty much all of our ideas about dinosaurs are wrong.

For example, movies have this tendency to portray dinosaurs as the one and only dominant prehistoric species. But according to Switek, there were many dino-like species that preceded them, including Archosaurs. Archosaurs contain ancestors of dinosaurs, crocodiles and other reptiles; most of them resemble a cross between what we would recognize as a crocodile and an armadillo. Switek says, "We're so dinosaur obsessed that it becomes difficult to extend our enthusiasm to these other prehistoric weirdos that we might not be as familiar with."

So why do we have such horrible misperceptions of dinosaurs? Switek explains that it's impossible for pop culture to keep up with the constant evolution of scientific discovery. "A new dinosaur is named just about every two weeks and beyond naming new species, new analyses on how they live is coming out at such a rapid pace that it's almost impossible for even the 'dinosaur inclined' to even keep up with all the stuff. So the rate of discovery is absolutely astonishing."

Switek traces this new search for a more accurate depiction of dinosaurs back to the 1970s, a time he calls the "Dinosaur renaissance." It wasn't until the 1970s that there was more of an attempt to depict dinosaurs with scientific accuracy. Before then, there wasn't enough research to piece together an accurate image of a dinosaur. Today, research is advancing to the point where new discoveries of dinosaurs are completely smashing our idea of what we consider a typical dinosaur. Switek describes his favourite dino, just discovered: "It totally grates against the image of dinosaurs I had as a kid. This is an animal that has a small beaked skull, a long neck, a tubby body and long arms with Freddy Cougar claws...and the whole thing is covered in fuzz and is the size of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. So, this giant sized, waddling, omnivore with really impressive claws...and that's why I love it so much because I think it really challenges us to expand our vision of what dinosaurs are".

Note: CBC Books previously published an uncorrected version of the story. We regret this and have since corrected it.

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