Dinosaur is the name of large extinct reptiles of the Mesozoic Era, during which they were the dominant land animals on Earth. The term was proposed as a formal zoologic name in 1842 by the British anatomist Sir Richard Owen, in reference to large fossil bones unearthed in southern England. The various kinds of dinosaurs are classified in two formal categories, the orders Saurischia and Ornithischia, within the subclass Archosauria.
The first recorded dinosaur remains found consisted of a few teeth and bones. They were discovered in 1882 in Sussex, England, by an English doctor, Gideon Mantell, who named them iguanodon. About the same time, other fossil teeth and bones were found near Oxford, England, by Rev. William Buckland. These were named Megalosaurus. Thousands of specimens have since been discovered nearly worldwide.
Different types of dinosaurs varied greatly in form and size, and they were adapted for diverse habitats. Their means of survival can only be identified from their fossil remains, and some identifications are in dispute. They ranged in weight from 4 to 6 lb., in the case of the compsognathus, and up to 160,000 lb., in the case of the brachiosaurus. Most dinosaurs were large, weighing more than 1,100 lb., and few weighed less than 100 lb. Most were herbivores, but some saurischians were carnivorous. The majority were four-footed but some ornithischians and all carnivores walked on their hind legs.
Always classified as reptiles, dinosaurs have traditionally been assumed to have been reptilian in their physiology, cold-blooded, and ectothermic. In recent years several different lines of evidence have been interpreted as indicating that dinosaurs may have had warm blood and high rates of metabolism, comparable to birds and mammals. Evidence supporting this view includes upright posture and carriage; mammallike microscopical structure of bones; skeletal features suggestive of high activity; and specialized food-processing dentitions and low ratios of dinosaurian predators to prey animals, both suggesting high food requirements. The evidence is not conclusive–all the facts can be alternatively explained–but some dinosaurs may have been endothermic.
The reproductive means of most dinosaurs is as yet unknown. Fossil eggs, attributed to one of the horned dinosaurs and a sauropod, have been discovered in Mongolia and France. Fragments that are presumed to be of dinosaur eggs have also been found in Brazil, Portugal, Tanzania, and in the United States, Colorado, Montana, and Utah. In Montana, Utah, and Alberta, Canada, fossils of unhatched dinosaur eggs have been discovered. This evidence indicates egg-laying reproduction in dinosaurs, like most modern reptiles. A few scientists believe that some dinosaurs may have given birth to living young, but no conclusive evidence has yet been found to support this.
The two orders of dinosaurs are distinguished by numerous features, the most diagnostic being the arrangement of the three bones of the pelvious. In saurischians, these bones were arranged in a triradiate pattern similar to that of modern crocodilians and lizards; the term Saurischia means lizard hip. The ornithischian pelvis was usually rectangular or tetraradiate; hence the name, which means bird hip.
During the 140-million-year reign of the dinosaurs, many new varieties evolved and older kinds died out. Not all kinds became extinct at once; but the last of the dinosaurs disappeared at the end of the Cretaceous. Many other animal kinds died out at about the same time, including the ichthyosaur, mosasour, plesiosaur, flying reptile, and a variety of lower organisms. What brought about such widespread extinction among so many different kinds of organisms is not known; it must, however, have involved major changes in the environment. Their extinction has been attributed to many causes, including cosmic radiation, exploding supernova, world-wide fluctuations in sea level, acid rain caused by volcanic activity, climatic change, and continental drift. Independent evidence indicates that sea levels did fall and temperatures dropped at the end of the Mesozoic Era, a time when continents were drifting apart and new mountain ranges were rising. Although none of these conditions is likely to have been solely responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs, collectively they may have been important.
Whatever the cause, the dinosaurs are now gone. In a way, however, they may remain. That is, many paleontologists consider birds almost certainly to have evolved from some small bipedal dinosaur during the Jurassic. If so, the children of the dinosaurs still exist today.