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Dinosaur Facts Part II

How are dinosaurs named?

Dinosaurs generally are named after a characteristic body feature, after the place where they were found, or after a person involved in the discovery. Usually the name consists of two Greek or Latin words (or combinations); in order, these are the genus (plural, genera) and the species name. For example, the Greek and Latin combination (binomen) Tyrannosaurus rex means "king of the tyrant lizards." Biologists name modern animals exactly the same way. Some examples include humans (Homo sapiens), domestic dogs (Canis familiaris), golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos), box turtles (Terrapene carolina), and rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus).

What was the biggest dinosaur? What was the smallest?

The largest complete dinosaur we know of was Brachiosaurus ("arm lizard"); it reached 23 m in length and 12 m in height (about the length of two large school buses and the height of a four-story building). Fragmentary leg bones and vertebrae of even larger dinosaur species are known, but these skeletal remains are too incomplete to determine their exact size. Several of these (Argentinasaurus and Amphicoelias) might have been one and a half to two times larger than Brachiosaurus. The smallest dinosaurs were just slightly larger than a chicken; Compsognathus ("pretty jaw") was 1 m (3 ft) long and probably weighed about 2.5 kg (about 6.5 lb). These three dinosaur types all lived during the Jurassic Period. Mussaurus ("mouse lizard") was claimed as the smallest dinosaur, but it is now known to be the hatchling of a dinosaur type that was much larger than Compsognathus when fully grown. If birds are advanced dinosaurs, then the smallest dinosaur would be the hummingbird!

How many types of dinosaurs are known?

Approximately 700 species have been named. However, a recent scientific review suggests that only about half of these are based on fairly complete specimens that can be shown to be unique and separate species. These species are placed in about 300 valid dinosaur genera (Stegosaurus, Diplodocus, etc.), although about 540 have been named. Recent estimates suggest that about 700 to 900 more dinosaur genera may remain to be discovered.

Most dinosaur genera presently contain only one species (for example, Deinonychus) but some have more (for example, Iguanodon). Even if all of the roughly 700 published species are valid, their number is still less than one-tenth the number of currently known living bird species, less than one-fifth the number of currently known mammal species, and less than one-third the number of currently known spider species.

Were dinosaurs warm-blooded?

Scientists have conflicting opinions on this subject. Some paleontologists think that all dinosaurs were "warm-blooded" in the same sense that modern birds and mammals are: that is, they had rapid metabolic rates. Other scientists think it unlikely that any dinosaur could have had a rapid metabolic rate. Some scientists think that very big dinosaurs could have had warm bodies because of their large body size, just as some sea turtles do today. It may be that some dinosaurs were warm-blooded. The problem is that it is hard to find evidence that unquestionably shows what dinosaur metabolisms were like.

How long could a dinosaur live?

Animal lifespans relate in part to their body size and in part to their type of metabolism. Dinosaur lifespans probably varied in length from tens of years to hundreds of years. Their possible maximum age can be estimated from the maximum lifespans of modern reptiles, such as the 66-year lifespan of the common alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) and the impressive lifespan of a Black Seychelles Tortoise (Geochelone [Aldabrachelys] sumeirei). One specimen of this now-extinct species, which was an adult when captured, lived a record 152 years in captivity (1766-1918) and had an accidental death. These estimates, based on lifespans of cold-blooded animals, would be too long if dinosaurs had metabolisms more similar to modern birds and mammals.

Return to Dinosaur Facts.

Source: United States Geological Survey

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