Dinosaur 101: The beginners’ guide to popular dinosaurs for new Dinomoms

Has your child suddenly developed a love of dinosaurs? Do you find yourself floundering when they ask questions about these prehistoric giants? You need Dinosaur 101, a beginners’ guide to essential dinosaurs for all Mamasaura and D-Rexes! With some basic information about the 12 most popular and common dinosaurs and how to recognise them, so you can impress your little dinosaur fan.

Even Paw Patrol has dinosaurs.

While that’s great for little dinosaur fans, it’s not so great for Mum and Dad who are still trying to remember the names of the pups, you know, Chase, Marshall, Spryte, Stone, Neufie and Bitzer. Which one had the crane?

With the pups spreading dinosaur cheer, some basic dinosaur knowledge is essential!

Welcome to Dinosaur 101. You’ll learn the fundamentals, including how to recognise the 12 dinosaurs you need to know if you have a little dinosaur fan. A bginners’ guide, if you like.

So grab your coffee, tea or gin & tonic and get ready to pass this Dinosaur Basics course.

Disclosure:
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Does your child like playing with dinosaurs like this little dinosaur fan does? Then you will need some basic dinosaur knowledge. You need Dinosaur 101.

Why Dinosaur 101?

For the non-Americans out there, a 101 course is the first or foundational course you must take for most subjects in college. To take Advanced Saurischian Classification, for example, you must pass Palaeontology 101.

This, therefore, is your beginner’s guide to the 12 most popular dinosaurs. This is essential knowledge for every parent (and grandparent) of a child who has just discovered a love of dinosaurs.

Why do you need Dinosaur 101?

You are your little dinosaur fan’s world. But now you share that position with dinosaurs. And Chase of course. Adapt.

You probably never thought you would need to know so much about dinosaurs. I didn’t.

The parenting manual doesn’t mention your child’s dinosaur period is likely to be your most intense period of dinosaur knowledge in your life. Even if you studied palaeontology.

A (tongue in cheek) graph of dinosaur knowledge over time, with knowledge high when you are a child, not as high when you are studying palaeontology and even higher when you have your own little dinosaur fan.

Some dinosaurs come up ALL. THE. TIME. In play. In books. At museums. THESE are the 12 dinosaurs you need to know and recognise immediately.

Welcome to Dinosaur 101

We’ll look at these dinosaurs in alphabetical order, looking first at the herbivores (plant eaters) and then carnivores (meat eaters).

But first, some terminology might be useful:


Terminology

  • Bipedal: An animal that has (or had) and walks (or walked) on 2 feet.
  • Carnivore: Meat eater (including fish).
  • Herbivore: An animal whose diet consists entirely of plants.
  • MYA: Abbreviation for Million Years Ago.
  • Omnivore: An animal whose diet consists of both plants and meat.
  • Prehistoric Marine Reptile: These giants of the deep coexisted with the dinosaurs. While they are ancient, huge, and worth knowing, and are often even referred to as a ‘Saurus’ (i.e. lizard, as in Mosasaurus), they are not technically dinosaurs and are not covered by Dinosaur 101.
  • Pterosaur, AKA prehistoric flying reptile: these are the “flying dinosaurs” or bat-like creatures that coexisted with the dinosaurs, including Pteranodon, Pterodactyl, Dimorphodon and huge Quetzalcoatlus. These are not technically dinosaurs and are not covered in Dinosaur 101.
  • Quadruped: An animal that has (or had) and walks (or walked) on 4 feet.
  • Sauropod: Any member of the dinosaur subgroup Sauropoda. These dinosaurs are large herbivores, have a long neck and tail, walk on four legs and are the largest land animals that ever lived.
  • Theropod: Any member of the dinosaur subgroup Theropoda, which includes all meat-eating dinosaurs, from crow-sized Microraptor to the huge Tyrannosaurus, as well as some herbivores. All had hollow bones and three-toed feet.

Dinosaur 101: A beginner’s guide to herbivorous dinosaurs

1.    Ankylosaurus

The Ankylosaurus is currently one of our LDA’s favourite dinos. It is the most famous of the armoured dinosaurs. And it was very heavily armoured.

Ankylosaurus had:

  • a wide, heavily armoured skull with two horns pointing backwards from the back of the head and two horns below these that pointed backwards and down
  • armour plates and knobs on every part of its body
  • armour even on its eyelids!
  • large spines projecting sideways from the body (though this is not definite from the fossil found)
  • a large club on the end of its tail – one of Hank’s most distinguishing traits – which may have been 57 cm wide. It was an effective weapon, capable of breaking bones.

This herbivorous dinosaur lived in what is now western USA and Canada in the Late Cretaceous (74-66 MYA). It grew to between 6 and 8 metres long and weighed between 4.8 and 8 tonnes.

Barnum Brown named Ankylosaurus (and the T-Rex). The name means “fused lizard” (with a great belly). The skull and other body parts were fused, to increase their strength.

Ankylosaurus lived alongside the Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus in what is now North America. It was slow moving and was not very picky about what it ate, snacking on tough leaves, pulpy fruits, ferns, and roots.

Ankylosaurus stirring up dust.

2.    Brachiosaurus

Brachiosaurus is easy to recognise. Or it used to be.

The front legs of this sauropod are longer than its back legs. It has a very long upright neck and a head with a bump on the top of its head. It was between 18 and 21 metres long and weighed 28 to 58 tonnes.

In 1900, palaeontologist Elmer S. Riggs and his team discovered the “biggest bone yet” in Colorado. At first, Riggs mistook it for a badly preserved Brontosaurus bone and ignored it. Later excavations yielded 38 crates of bones weighing 5,700 kg.

Unfortunately, most of what we know about the Brachiosaurus is based on a closely related but different dinosaur called Giraffatitan. The latter was only reclassified in 2009 and most depictions do not distinguish between the two. Both looked like huge giraffes.

I know, it’s confusing.

Don’t worry, most children do not know the difference. They have probably never heard of Giraffatitan and it does not appear in books.

Riggs’ specimen was prepared and put on display at the Field Museum in Chicago. The Giraffatitan was used to make up the missing bones. In 1999 the skeleton was moved to make way for Tyrannosaurus and can now be seen in UA Terminal One at O’Hare International Airport. Two further cases were made. One stands outside the Field Museum and the other is at DinoLand U.S.A. in Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

Brachiosaurus eating leaves from the top of a tree.

3.    Brontosaurus

There is much confusion over the Brontosaurus. Is it still a dinosaur?

Rest assured, it is.

Four Brontosaurus fossils have been found. The first was discovered in 1879 by Othniel Charles Marsh and named “thunder lizard”.

Marsh’s Brontosaurus was quite likely an Apatosaurus, rather than a separate species. This reclassification meant, for more than 100 years, there was no such thing as a Brontosaurus. Still, colloquially, a Brontosaurus was any long-necked dinosaur.

Further examination and classification of the other 3 Brontosaurus fossils in 2015 found showed enough different characteristics to justify a separate type of dinosaur: the Brontosaurus was back.

The quadruped sauropod had a long thin neck, a small head, a bulky, heavy torso, and a long, whip-like tail. In contrast to Brachiosaurus, Brontosaurus’ front legs were slightly shorter than its back legs. This plant-eating dinosaur lived in what is now North America in the Late Jurassic period, weighed up to 15 tonnes and measured up to 22 metres long.

Brontosaurus head fossils remained elusive for many years. Marsh depicted Brontosaurus with quite a large, fat head. Later finds confirmed it had a slimmer head, like a Diplodocus.

Dinosaur 101: Watercolor sauropod with watercolour heart

Note: The green Sinclair Oil Corporation logo is a Brontosaurus (which is why there is a dinosaur in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade). A similar logo is used for the oil brand in the animated Cars films, though it may not be a Brontosaurus (perhaps it’s a Camarasaurus?!).

If you like the Brontosaurus, try our Bronto burgers.

A Brontosaurus drinking at the waterside (or an Apatosaurus - artwork has not caught up to the reclassifications)

4.    Diplodocus

If you’ve been to a dinosaur museum, you probably saw a Diplodocus fossil.

For many years, Diplodocus was the longest known dinosaur. The Diplodocus was 24 to 25 metres long, possibly even as long as 32 metres, and weighed between 12 and 14.8 tonnes. It lived in what is now North America during the Jurassic period (154-152 MYA).

Its whip-like tail is one of the longest compared to its body. The tail had about 80 vertebrae, almost double that of any other sauropod (Shunosaurus had 43; Camarasaurus had 53).

The Bone Wars inspired many institutions, including the American Museum of Natural History, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and the Field Museum of Natural History, to assemble dinosaur fossil collections. They sent out expeditions to find dinosaur fossils, especially fossils of large sauropods for their fossil halls.

And they were prolific.

The wealth of skeletal remains makes the herbivorous Diplodocus one of the most studied and best-known dinosaurs. Juvenile fossils and fossilised skin impressions have even been found.

The skin impressions showed that the Diplodocus had narrow, pointed spines of keratin, like those of an iguana. These were up to 18 cm long and grew on the whiplash portion of the tails and possibly on the back and neck as well.

Dinosaur 101: Watercolor sauropod with watercolour heart

First depictions of the Diplodocus showed the animal holding its head high in the air to graze from trees. Studies of their necks and ligaments revealed that the natural position was instead horizontal to their back and bodies. If the Diplodocus had held its head above its heart, it would have needed a second “heart” in its neck to help pump the blood to its brain.

The Diplodocus could still graze from the trees. With its point of gravity near its hips, the Diplodocus could rear up on its hind legs to graze without raising the angle of its neck. Its tail would also serve as a balance.

In 1899, these expeditions unearthed the most famous Diplodocus fossil for the Carnegie Museum (the group also discovered a Stegosaurus, Brontosaurus and Camarasaurus). This skeleton, officially known as Diplodocus carnegii, was quite complete and became known as “Dippy”.

And Dippy travelled the world.

The mounted Diplodocus was cast and gifted to museums in London, Berlin, Paris, Vienna, Bologna, St Petersburg, Buenos Aires, Madrid, and Mexico City. The American Museum of Natural History also gifted the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt a more complete skeleton of a Diplodocus (D. Longus) for its opening.

Have you seen any of them?

Do you like the Diplodocus? Check out our reviews of the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt and the National Natural History Museum in Paris where the Diplodocus can be found. London and Berlin are great too.

For more tips on how to spot a scientifically correct dinosaur or dinosaur gift, check out this post.

Artist's impression of a Diplodocus, complete with keratin back spikes along its spine.

5.    Iguanodon

Some of the most impressive fossils I have ever seen are the Iguanodons at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences.

In 1878, 30 relatively complete Iguanodon skeletons were discovered 322 metres underground in a coal mine in Bernissart in the southwest of Belgium, close to the French border. As the bones were still in their original position, the skeletons could be presented in lifelike poses.

They are now housed in a 300 m2 glass case that you can view from above, below and even between the different iguanodons. They are truly impressive, and not just for dinosaur lovers.

Iguanodon, which means “Iguana tooth”, was named in 1825. It is the second type of dinosaur formally named. This large herbivore lived 126 to 122 MYA.

Iguanodons were around 10 metres long and weighed around three tonnes. Scientists think they generally walked on all fours but could stand on their back legs to forage for food. 

They had large thumb spikes and long fingers for foraging for food. The real reason for the spike is debated, however, it was originally thought to be a nose spike…

Iguanodons are one of the most “successful” species and have been found in Belgium, Spain, Germany, England and Portugal. Because of the number of fossils found, palaeontologists have gleaned more information about Iguanodons than many other dinosaurs.

If you like the Iguanodon, read our review of the Royal Belgian Institute for Natural Sciences.

Group of 3 Iguanodons

6.    Stegosaurus

Stegosaurus was a large plant-eating dinosaur that lived 150 MYA. It is one of the most well-recognised dinosaurs due to the distinctive defensive ridge of 17 bony plates along its back and tail. It also has powerful defensive spikes on its tail, which are called thagomizers (after a Far Side comic). 

Stegosaurus means roofed lizard as the back plates were originally thought to be part of a shell, much like a turtle. While we now know they are back plates, their purpose is not clear. They may have regulated body temperature, or changed colour either to warn predators or as part of a mating ritual. 

Stegosaurus was possibly the least intelligent of all the dinosaurs It had one of the smallest brains of all dinosaurs, relative to body size. While it could weigh up to 10 tonnes, its brain was the size of a walnut.

The brain was so small that experts thought Stegosaurus might have had a second – larger – brain in their hindquarters. This theory has since been debunked – the second “brain cavity” is now thought to have held glycogen, like some modern-day birds. 

Despite its intelligence, Stegosaurus were incredibly successful. Fossils have been found in the USA Europe, Africa and Asia. 

If you like the Stegosaurus, make our Stegosaurus egg cosy.

Stegosaurus feeding.

7.    Triceratops

The herbivorous Triceratops is easy to recognise. Its name – which means three-horned face in Greek – reflects its first main identifier. The Triceratops had a pair of brow horns approximately one metre long above each eye and a third, much smaller horn above its mouth.

The second main identifier is the huge bony frill on its head, which is studded with small spikes called epoccipitals. At 2.5 metres in length, the Triceratops skull is one of the largest of any known land animal.

The function of both has long inspired debate. 

Traditionally, the horns were thought to be used for defence. The horns are now thought to have functioned more like antlers on a deer: for identification, courtship and displays of dominance. 

The frill is a little more mysterious. 

Did it help regulate body temperature? Did it protect the Triceratops from predators? Did it help them recognise different ceratopsian species?

Given the extravagant frills of other Ceratopsians, like the Kosmoceratops, courtship display was probably the primary function.

The Triceratops lived in the Late Cretaceous, 83 to 66 MYA, in what is now North America.

If you like Triceratops, make some of our Triceratops dip.

Triceratops as shown at a museum
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Dinosaur 101: A beginner’s guide to carnivorous dinosaurs

8.    Allosaurus

The Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry in east-central Utah has the densest concentration of Jurassic-aged dinosaur bones ever found. More than 12,000 bones belonging to at least 74 dinosaurs have been excavated from the quarry. Forty-six of these are Allosaurus.

While these finds have helped us deduce much about Allosaurus, it is unclear why so many ended up in one place.

Allosaurus was the dominant predator in North America during the Late Jurassic era (155 to 145 MYA). This carnivorous theropod was 8.5 metres long and weighed 2.3 tonnes, with large hind legs, small three-fingered forelimbs and a long, muscular tail.

Its large, light head was filled with sharp, serrated teeth. Allosaurus also had a pair of small horns above the eyes, where you imagine eyebrows. Ridges ran along the top of the nose to the horns.

Allosaurus may not have been able to hear well, but it had highly developed olfactory bulbs to help them track their pray – Apatosaurus, Camarasaurus, Diplodocus and Stegosaurus. It could move at speeds of up to 30 to 55 km/hour.

Three Allosaurus hunting.

9.    Archaeopteryx

Archaeopteryx, the “ancient wing,” “original bird,” is also referred to as the “Urvogel” (which unsurprisingly is German for original bird).

This little carnivorous dinosaur lived in the Late Jurassic (151-148 MYA). It was found in Solnhofen, Germany, near a wonderful dinosaur park we will share with you soon.

  • It was a little smaller than a raven (50cm long and around 1kg in weight),
  • had jaws and sharp teeth rather than a beak,
  • three fingers with claws
  • a killing claw on each foot
  • a long bony tail and
  • black feathers (yes, we know what colour some of the feathers were).

Twelve fossils have been found – the first in 1861 and the most recent in 2010 – and most of them reveal quite detailed impressions of feathers. These feathers were similar in structure to those of modern-day birds. Archaeopteryx may have had the ability to fly.

The most famous one can be seen in the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin – we will have a post on the Museum soon, too. 

Until recently, the Archaeopteryx was thought to be the oldest known bird. It is now classified as a transitional fossil, somewhere between non-avian dinosaurs and birds. However, it is still unclear whether the Archaeopteryx is an ancestor of modern birds or a relative. 

If you like Archaeopteryx, be sure to check out our posts on the Berlin Naturkunde Museum and Altmühltal Dinosaur Park, which is located in the valley where the Archaeopteryx fossils were found.

Archaeopteryx as depicted at the Dino Park in Münchehagen - though the Archaeopteryx was black and not blue

10. Spinosaurus

Spinosaurus, the “spine lizard” is a fearsome theropod which predominantly ate fish and spent most of its life swimming and hunting in the tidal flats and mangroves of what is now Northern Africa.

At 18 metres long, it was the longest carnivore that ever lived, larger than the T-Rex or Giganotosaurus, but was probably more slender than both (swimming was good for its figure). 

This Cretaceous predator (it lived 112 to 93.5 MYA) has a distinctive set of spines, which grew up to 2.2 metres high and were long extensions of the spine. They probably had skin connecting them, to look like a sail. The spines also make it the tallest carnivore.

It also had a long skull (1.75 metres long!), similar to a crocodile and a mouth full of sharp teeth. 

Spinosaurus was discovered in Egypt in 1912 and named by German palaeontologist Ernst Stromer. Unfortunately, the remains were destroyed by Allied bombing during WWII. Other Spinosaurus fossils have since been found in neighbouring Morocco. Further possible remains have been found in Tunisia, Niger, Kenya and Libya.

Life-sized Spinosaurus in the forest at a dinosaur park.

11.  Tyrannosaurus

This fearsome predator probably needs no introduction: it is the favourite of most dinosaur fans and the most famous dinosaur of all.

Tyrannosaurus Rex, the “tyrant lizard king” is a large bipedal carnivore that lived during the Cretaceous period (68 to 66 MYA) in what is now western North America.

Tyrannosaurus had a massive skull and a long heavy tail to balance it. It had powerful hind limbs, but comically short forelimbs with only two fingers on each “hand”. It grew to at least 12.3 metres in length, was 3.6 to nearly 4 metres tall at the hips and weighed between 8.4 and 14 tonnes.

Although it is often depicted otherwise, T-Rex had keen eyesight and relatively rapid eye movements. It could sense low-frequency sounds and had a heightened sense of smell. It could also run at around 32 km/hour. This made it a powerful predator.

Most terrifying perhaps was its bite. Tyrannosaurus had the strongest bite force of all terrestrial animals and teeth like lethal bananas.

The apex predator preyed on hadrosaurs, juvenile Triceratops and Ankylosaurus and possibly on sauropods, too. It may have hunted in packs.

More than 42 Tyrannosaurus skeletons have been found, some of which are nearly complete. At least one includes some soft tissue and proteins. While we may not find any DNA, it means we know a lot about the T-Rex’s feeding habits, physiology and potential speed.

Dinosaur 101: Watercolor sauropod with watercolour heart

We were lucky enough recently to see Trix the T-Rex at the Naturalis Biodiversity Centre in Leiden in the Netherlands.

Trix – named after Queen Beatrix – was excavated in 2013 in Montana by a team from the Centre, where she is now on display. She lived to be more than 30 years old and is the oldest known Tyrannosaurus specimen. She is also the third most complete Tyrannosaurus skeleton (around 75 to 80% of the bones have been found) and includes some bones not found in any other fossil.

Staff at the museum created scans of the missing bones (from Trix and other Tyrannosaurs) and printed them using a 3D printer. She is one of only three T-Rexes on permanent display in mainland Europe.

Look out for our upcoming post on Naturalis and its dinosaurs, coming soon.

Tyrannosaurus hunting in the forest

12. Velociraptor

The “swift robber” is a small, bipedal, feathered carnivore with a long tail that lived 75 to 71 MYA in what is now Mongolia.

Many are familiar with the Velociraptor because of its prominent role in Jurassic Park. However, the dinosaur depicted as Velociraptor in the films is actually one of its larger brothers, Utahraptor or Deinonychus.

Velociraptors were small, about the size of a turkey, and covered in feathers. Adult Velociraptors measured about 2 metres long, stood at half a metre high at the hip and weighed between 15 and 20 kg. In contrast to other raptors, it had a long and low skull with an upturned snout.

Velociraptor was a fierce predator. It had large hands with three curved claws. On the second digit of each hindfoot, it had a large, sickle-shaped claw that grew up to 6.5 cm long. This was used to restrain and tear into struggling prey.

Jurassic Park depicts the Velociraptor as pack hunters. However, the fossils don’t support pack behaviour: all Velociraptor finds have involved isolated dinosaurs.

A more accurate depiction of Velociraptor, from a local museum

The Dinosaur 101 timeline

Let’s face it, Triassic, Jurassic, Cretaceous… Keeping track of when each of these dinosaurs lived is as difficult as working out how Ryder is still 10 years old and the Paw Patrol pups are still puppies after ten seasons.

That’s where this timeline comes in handy. It shows when these awesome creatures lived, relative to one another, and what they ate. This makes it easier to answer burning questions from your little dinosaur fan, like:

  1. Which dinosaurs did Allosaurus eat? (Stegosaurus and Diplodocus)
  2. Which dinosaurs were wiped out by the meteorite? (All of them, though Triceratops, Ankylosaurus and T-Rex were still around when it hit)
  3. Who would win in a fight between Spinosaurus and Tyrannosaurus? (They didn’t live during the same millennia, so they never got to fight)
Dinosaur 101: Timeline of when the 12 dinosaurs (that every Mamasaurus MUST know) lived and what they ate, broken down into the 3 major time periods and ending with extinction 66 MYA

The Dinosaur 101 textbooks

The crucial Dinosaur 101 exams, AKA playing dinosaur with your little dinosaur fan, visiting the local dinosaur museum or googling the answer to their out-there question of the day. Will you pass?

We’ve got a few books to help you swot:

Dictionary of Dinosaurs: An Illustrated A to Z of Every Dinosaur Ever Discovered: While it is far from every dinosaur, this dictionary provides brief information about numerous dinosaurs with more information about key dinosaurs. And we love the watercolour pictures.

The Magnificent Book of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Creatures: This book only focuses on the big dinosaurs, but all the dinosaurs in this Dinosaur 101 syllabus are included (except Brontosaurus). The attention to detail in the images is amazing.

The Girl’s Guide to Dinosaurs: This is probably not what you would expect us to recommend. But the pictures are gorgeous and Julie McGann makes light of one characteristic of each dinosaur, which makes it easier to remember why they are special.

Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Life: I saw this one at a museum recently, but it wasn’t in the right language. This book takes a different approach from the other books on this list because it starts with the fossil.

Lift-the-Flap Questions and Answers about Dinosaurs: The lift the flap format means this book is fun to read with your little dinosaur fan, too. It’s great for general dinosaur information.

Congratualtions on passing Dinosaur 101!

Armed with your new knowledge of the 12 most popular dinosaurs, you’ll have no difficulty picking out the Triceratops when playing, identifying Diplodocus from afar at the Museum and answering those curly and much loved “Which dinosaur would win in a fight between… ” questions.

You’ll even impress your little dinosaur fan with your newly-acquired knowledge.

But you’re on your own with the names of the Paw Patrol pups.

This is just the first post in our new series designed to arm new Mamasaura and D-Rexes with the dinosaur knowledge they need to impress their little dinosaur fans.

Help us choose the dinosaurs for our next post: which dinosaurs would you like to read about in Dinosaur 102?

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