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Discovery Magazine 9/1/1998

How Do We Know What We Know About the Dinosaurs?

Skeleton of Triceratops. What can you learn from this skeleton? What are some of the things it cannot tell you?

Imagine you are a detective sent to track down a criminal. You might find a piece of clothing, or a footprint. These clues might help you find the criminal. The clothing may tell you what he is wearing, and the footprint may tell you how big he is, and what sort of shoe he is wearing.

Like detectives, scientists must look for clues when they want to find out something about creatures that lived in the past. The clues come in the form of fossils, which are the remains of dead plants and animals preserved in the rocks of the Earth.

Bones, teeth, and other hard parts of the body are the most common types of fossils. If scientists find enough remains belonging to one dinosaur, they can get a good idea of its shape and size. Sometimes, just one part of the dinosaur can give us a lot of information. For instance, if you found a fossil skull with two long horns, one short horn on its nose, and a solid bony collar, what sort of dinosaur would it be?

There are other sorts of dinosaur remains. Fossilized eggs and nests sometimes can tell us how the adults cared for their young. On rare occasions, people find an impression of the skin. This tells us about the texture of the skin, but no one has found the original colors. Artists have fun painting bold stripes and bright colors, but no one knows exactly what the dinosaurs looked like.

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