Three toes. Two legs. Little arms. Are dinosaurs birds, or are birds dinosaurs?
Have you ever wanted to see a dinosaur in real life? Wouldn’t it be cool to be able to go somewhere like a Jurassic Zoo or a Cretaceous Park and see a T. rex or Apatosaurus doing its dino thing? Creatures such as sharks and horseshoes crabs have stood the test of time, and their descendants can be observed today. But what about other ancient animals?
We can learn a great deal by looking at their fossils, but there is something else we can do in our modern era to get a glimpse at what dinosaurs may have been like: go bird watching! That’s right! As strange as it may seem, there is a large body of evidence collected by scientists that suggests that birds are in fact the closest living relatives to dinosaurs! But before you grab your hiking gear and binoculars, here are a few cool facts to help you answer the question, "Are birds dinosaurs?"
A dinosaur named Archaeopteryx may be the evolutionary link between dinosaurs and birds.
Archaeopteryx was discovered in Germany and was surprisingly well preserved. Paleontologists found one specimen that still had feathers! It was long believed that
Archaeopteryx was the first bird, but upon further study, it was found to be more closely related to the Maniraptoran family of dinosaurs than modern birds. This further cemented its place as a bridge, or transition fossil, between dinosaurs and birds.
Birds are related to theropod dinosaurs — a group that includes the Tyrannosaurus rex.
Theropods were bipedal dinosaurs, meaning they walked on two legs, not four like many other dinosaurs. When we look at the modern-day emu or ostrich, the resemblance to these dinosaurs is striking, especially when examining their bone structure.
However, they are not the only birds with similarities to theropods. Underneath Orlando Science Center’s resident T. rex, Stan, we have a skeleton of a chicken to show their shared ancestry. Comparing the two makes one realize how lucky we are that chickens don’t get as big as the mighty Tyrannosaurus rex.
Birds have scales like many dinosaurs and some dinosaurs may have had feathers.
Scientists have discovered that the tissues used to produce scales in reptiles are similar to those that produce feathers in birds. This suggests that there is a common ancestor between dinosaurs, birds, and reptiles. Furthermore, birds have scales on their feet!
A recently discovered dinosaur in China had preserved skin with what looks like feathers, or what paleontologists refer to as proto-feathers. However, further study is required, and this is a topic of debate among scientists.
Birds lay eggs similar to dinosaurs and reptiles.
The similarities between bird and reptile eggs are well known, but they also share traits with dinosaur eggs.
Most dinosaur eggs are hard-shelled, just like the eggs of our modern-day feathered friends. They are also both made up of the same basic elements, calcium, and carbon, which form crystal structures that make the eggshell more difficult to crack.
Some modern birds still have claws similar to Maniraptoran dinosaurs.
There is a reason modern birds of prey are often referred to as raptors. Their talons have a similar curvature to those found in dinosaurs like the velociraptor. In the case of the bald eagle, these talons are used to tightly grip their prey.
Other birds have different uses for their talons. The cassowary, native to Australia, is a large flightless bird that can grow as tall as 5.6 feet. With a large crest on their head and blue skin, they look like they walked right out of a time machine! Their claws are mainly used in self-defense. When threatened, these modern-day dinos will rear up and attempt to jab at their attacker with frightening precision.
Expand on the lesson!
So, are birds dinosaurs? Now that we've explored this question, and have learned about how birds are related to dinosaurs, you can go out bird watching and make your own scientific observations! Here in Florida, you don’t have to travel far to spot dinosaur descendants. Birds like the sandhill crane, red-shouldered hawk, and bald eagle can be found in your own backyard or on a short hike! Create and chart your observations with this DIY animal chart activity!
Make sure to stay safe and take precautions while looking for dino descendants! If you want to learn more about living animals or dinosaurs, be sure to stop by Natureworks or DinoDigs at the Orlando Science Center. We look forward to seeing you!
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