Cultural depictions of dinosaurs

Cultural depictions of dinosaurs
Plateosaurus reproduction on display with many people enjoying the park, Grün 80, near Basel, Switzerland.

Since the word dinosaur was coined in 1842, there have been various cultural depictions of dinosaurs. The dinosaurs featured in books, films, television programs, artwork, and other media have been used for both education and entertainment. The depictions range from the realistic, as in the television documentaries of the 1990s and first decade of the 21st century, or the fantastic, as in the monster movies of the 1950s and 1960s.

Cultural depictions of dinosaurs have been an important means of translating scientific discoveries to the public. The growth in interest in dinosaurs since the Dinosaur Renaissance has been accompanied by depictions made by artists working with ideas at the leading edge of dinosaur science, presenting lively dinosaurs and feathered dinosaurs as these concepts were first being considered. Cultural depictions have also created or reinforced misconceptions about dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals, such as inaccurately portraying a sort of "prehistoric world" where many kinds of extinct animals (from the Permian animal Dimetrodon to mammoths and cavemen) lived together, and dinosaurs living lives of constant combat. Other misconceptions reinforced by cultural depictions came from a scientific consensus that has now been overturned, such as the alternate usage of dinosaur to describe something that is maladapted or obsolete, or dinosaurs as slow and unintelligent.


History of depictions

Early human history to 1900: Early depictions

Protoceratops skeleton at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center... or a Scythian griffin skeleton?

The first attempts to understand dinosaurs may have started thousands of years before they were officially named. Humans have long found fossils and incorporated them into their myths. For example, the griffin of mythology may be based on dinosaur skeletons found in the Gobi Desert. As noted by Adrienne Mayor, a classical folklorist, griffins were said to inhabit the Scythian steppes that reached from the modern Ukraine to central Asia. Mayor draws a connection to Protoceratops, a frilled dinosaur that is commonly found in the Gobi.[1] This dinosaur has many features associated with griffins; they share sharp beaks, four legs, claws, similar size, and large eyes (or eye sockets in the case of the fossils), and the neck frill of Protoceratops, with large open holes, is consistent with descriptions of large ears or wings. Additionally, its bones, which appear white, are easy to see in reddish Gobi rocks.[2]

A Megalosaurus stalks Crystal Palace Park in London.

The meticulous, scientific study of dinosaurs began in the 1820s of England. In 1842, Richard Owen coined the term dinosaur, which under his vision were elephantine reptiles. An ambitious scientist who used dinosaurs and other fossils to promote his beliefs, Owen was the driving force for the Crystal Palace dinosaur sculptures, the first large-scale dinosaur reconstructions that were accessible to the public (1854). These sculptures, which can still be seen today, immortalized a very early stage in the perception of dinosaurs.[3] The Crystal Palace sculptures were successful enough that Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, Owen's collaborator, sold models of his sculptures[4] and planned a second exhibition, Paleozoic Museum, for Central Park in Manhattan in the late 1860s; it was never completed due to the interference of local politics and "Boss" William Marcy Tweed.[5] In the same period, dinosaurs first appeared in popular literature, with a passing mention of an Owen-style Megalosaurus in Charles Dickens's Bleak House (1852–1853).[6] However, depictions of dinosaurs were rare in the 19th century, possibly due to incomplete knowledge. Despite the well-publicized "Bone Wars" of the late 19th century between Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, dinosaurs were not yet ingrained in culture. Marsh, although a pioneer of skeletal reconstructions, did not support putting mounted skeletons on display, and derided the Crystal Palace sculptures.[7]

1900 to the 1930s: New media

The 1897 painting of "Laelaps" (now Dryptosaurus) by Charles R. Knight.

As study caught up to the wealth of new material from western North America, and venues for depictions proliferated, dinosaurs gained in popularity. The paintings of Charles R. Knight were the first influential representations of these finds. Knight worked extensively with the American Museum of Natural History and its director, Henry Fairfield Osborn, who wanted to use dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals to promote his museum[8] and his ideas on evolution.[9] Knight’s work, found in museums around the country, helped popularize dinosaurs and influenced generations of paleoartists. Interestingly, his early work showing fighting "Laelaps" (=Dryptosaurus) depicted dinosaurs as much more lively than they would be presented for much of the 20th century.[8] At the same time, improvements in casting allowed dinosaur skeletons to be reproduced and shipped across the world for display in far-flung museums, bringing them to the attention of a wider audience; Diplodocus was the first such dinosaur reproduced in this way.[10]

Winsor McCay's animated Brontosaurus in the 1912 film Gertie the Dinosaur.

Dinosaurs began appearing in films soon after the introduction of cinema, the first being the good-natured animated Gertie the Dinosaur in 1912.[11] However, lovable dinosaurs were quickly replaced by monsters as moviemakers recognized the potential of huge frightening monsters.[12] D. W. Griffith in 1914’s Brute Force provided the first example of a threatening cinematic dinosaur, a Ceratosaurus who menaced cavemen. This film enshrined the fiction that dinosaurs and early humans lived together, and set up the cliché that dinosaurs were bloodthirsty and attacked anything that moved.[4]

The now-common trope of dinosaurs existing in isolated locations in today’s world appeared at the same time, with Arthur Conan Doyle's 1912 book The Lost World and the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs as pioneers. The Lost World crossed into the movies in 1925, setting heights for special effects and attempts at scientific accuracy. It is unusual, even today, for attempting to portray dinosaurs as something other than monsters that spent their lives in combat. The stop-motion techniques of Willis O'Brien went on to bring dinosaurs to life in the 1933 film King Kong, which merged the tropes of dinosaur combat and dinosaurs in a lost world.[4] His protégé Ray Harryhausen would continue to refine this method, but most later dinosaurs movies until the advent of CGI would eschew such expensive effects for cheaper methods, such as humans in dinosaur suits, modern reptiles enlarged by cinematography, and reptiles with dinosaur decorations.[4][13] Dinosaur depictions diversified in the 1930s, spreading to newspaper comic strips in Alley Oop[13] and to advertising for Sinclair Oil.[4]

The 1930s to 1970s: Moribund dinosaurs to renaissance

The Great Depression and World War II combined to sink the study of dinosaurs into a decades-long lull.[14] Scientists considered dinosaurs a group of unrelated animals[15][16] that left no descendants, and dinosaurs were presented as stupid, slow, stuck in swamps, and doomed to extinction.[17] Scientific dinosaur artwork, primarily from Rudolph F. Zallinger and Zdeněk Burian, reflected and reinforced the conception of dinosaurs as slow and static (one artistic quirk that became commonplace in representations of Mesozoic landscapes, the presence of a volcano, was a hallmark of Zallinger's).[14] From such ideas came the alternate definition of “dinosaur” as something out of date.[18]

Films of the time typically used dinosaurs as monsters, with the added element of atomic fears in the early Cold War. Thus, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and Godzilla (1954; American release 1956) portray monstrous dinosaur-like prehistoric reptiles that go on rampages after being awakened by atomic bomb tests.[4][19] An alternative appears in Disney’s animated Fantasia (1940), in its The Rite of Spring sequence, which attempted to portray dinosaurs with some scientific accuracy (although it has the common error of showing prehistoric animals from many different time periods living at the same time).[4] Dinosaurs gained a home in television in the 1960s animated sitcom The Flintstones, in another example of dinosaurs shown as coexisting with humans (for comedic effect in this case).[13] Dinosaurs also entered comic books in this period in such series as Tor and Turok, where prehistoric humans fought anachronistic dinosaurs. For those wanting more scientific accounts of dinosaurs, there were the first nontechnical dinosaur books. Ned Colbert’s The Dinosaur Book (1945) was the first such book, and its status as the only such book for many years made Colbert an important figure for the coming generations of paleontologists and dinosaur enthusiasts.[4]

In the 1960s, paleontologist John Ostrom began work on the theropod Deinonychus.[20] His findings, which were expanded upon by his student Robert T. Bakker, contributed to the Dinosaur Renaissance,[21] a revolution in the study of dinosaurs. Of particular importance were a reevaluation of the origin of birds that showed them to be closely related to coelurosaurian dinosaurs,[22] reappraisal of dinosaur physiology that suggested they weren’t the sluggish cold-blooded animals they’d long been assumed to be,[23] and a recognition that dinosaurs formed a natural group.[24] Soon thereafter came new evidence on dinosaur social behavior, with nests of Maiasaura suggesting parental care.[25] These findings were reflected in the work of a new generation of paleoartists. One milestone was Sarah Landry's feathered dinosaur in Bakker's 1975 Scientific American article, Dinosaur Renaissance.[14]

The 1980s to the present: Dinosaurs reconsidered

Outdated and modern reconstructions of Iguanodon.

The reevaluation of dinosaurs spurred public interest, with the new generation of paleoartists quick to respond. Artists such as Mark Hallett, Doug Henderson, John Gurche, Gregory S. Paul, William Stout, and Bob Walters illustrated the new findings in response to the demand.[14]

By the latter half of the 1980s and into the 1990s, other media were showing the influence of the increased popularity, with diverse depictions aimed at a variety of ages and interests.

Sculptor Jim Gary's Triceratops siverina that was created by assembling motor vehicle parts, was displayed among his popular exhibition that traveled the world for display at museums and other venues from the 1960s through 2004

In 1990 the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., featured an exhibition of dinosaur sculpture by Jim Gary that drew more visitors than any of its previous exhibits.[26] His dinosaurs, popular since the 1960s, began being featured in textbooks, encyclopedias, and videos as well as later, by the likes of National Geographic, in their publications for children in 1975.[27]

For preschoolers, there was the educational television show Barney & Friends starting in 1992; their older siblings had the 1988 animated movie The Land Before Time and its increasing line of direct to video sequels (12 by 2008). Dinosaurs, a television sitcom, parodied humans and other television shows. Of particular note is Michael Crichton’s 1990 novel, Jurassic Park, the popularity of which led to a series of films and other media. The first of these, Jurassic Park, married advanced CGI[4] with advances in scientific knowledge of dinosaurs.[28] Dinosaur was the most expensive movie in 2000, but was a box-office success. The falling cost of computer-generated effects also has recently allowed the increased production of documentaries for television; the award-winning 1999 BBC series Walking with Dinosaurs, 2001's When Dinosaurs Roamed America, 2009's Animal Armageddon and 2011's Planet Dinosaur are notable examples.

Public perception of dinosaurs

Feathered restoration of Deinonychus antirrhopus.
A sculpture of a dinosaur and sheep (10 meters long and 4 meters tall) as criticism of the church/pope

The popular ideals of dinosaurs have many misconceptions, reinforced by films, books, comics, television shows, and even theme parks. Typical errors include: prehistoric humans living with dinosaurs; dinosaurs as monsters that did little else but fight;[4][28] the portrayal of a kind of "prehistoric world" where all prehistoric animals are shown to exist;[4] dinosaurs as all large; dinosaurs as stupid and slow; the inclusion of many prehistoric animals (such as Dimetrodon, ichthyosaurs, mosasaurs, pterosaurs, and plesiosaurs) as dinosaurs;[13][28] and dinosaurs as failures. Reports in the news media of dinosaur finds and dinosaur science are often inaccurate and sensationalistic, and popular dinosaur books usually lag scientific understanding.[28] Dinosaur toys and models are often inaccurate, packaged indiscriminately with other prehistoric animals,[28] or have fictitious additions like the large sharp teeth in some rubber Triceratops toys.[4] The pejorative use of "dinosaur" as something behind the times has been applied to people, styles, and ideas that are perceived to be out of date, and on the wane.[29] For example, members of the punk movement derided the "progressive" bands that preceded them as "dinosaur bands".[30]

However, some popular depictors have strived for accuracy and present up-to-date information; Michael Crichton[28] and Bill Watterson (of Calvin and Hobbes)[31] are two contemporary examples. Paleoartists and illustrators in particular have kept up with research. Popular conceptions of dinosaurs have also been important in stimulating the interest and imagination of young people, and have been responsible for introducing many who would later become paleontologists to the field. In addition, popular depictions have the freedom to be more imaginative and speculative than technical works.[11]


The typical use of dinosaurs in popular culture has been as vicious monsters.[4] There are several distinct genres of dinosaur depictions commonly used: "lost worlds" on modern Earth; time travel stories; educational works for children;[11] prehistoric world stories (often with cavemen);[28] and dinosaurs running amok in the modern world.[13]


The appeal of dinosaurs, as suggested by author, researcher, and dinosaur enthusiast Donald F. Glut, has multiple factors. Dinosaurs were "monsters," yet are safely extinct, allowing for vicarious thrills. They appeal to the imagination, and there are many ways to approach them intellectually. Finally, they appeal to adults nostalgic for what they enjoyed as children. Children have been particularly drawn to dinosaurs over the years.[4]


  1. ^ Mayor, Adrienne (2000). The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-05863-6. 
  2. ^ Dodson, Peter (1996). The Horned Dinosaurs. Princeton: Princeton University Press. pp. 225–226. ISBN 0-691-05900-4. 
  3. ^ Torrens, Hugh. "Politics and Paleontology". The Complete Dinosaur, 175–190.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Glut, Donald F.; Brett-Surman, Michael K. (1997). "Dinosaurs and the media". The Complete Dinosaur. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. pp. 675–706. ISBN 0-253-33349-0. 
  5. ^ Colbert, Edwin H.; Beneker, Katharine (1959). "The Palaeozoic Museum in Central Park, or the Museum that Never Was". Curator 2 (2): 137–150. doi:10.1111/j.2151-6952.1959.tb01403.x. 
  6. ^ "London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborne Hill." From page 1 of Dickens, Charles J.H. (1852). Bleak House, Chapter I: In Chancery. London: Bradbury & Evans.
  7. ^ Dodson, Peter. The Horned Dinosaurs, 74-75.
  8. ^ a b Paul, Gregory S. (2000). "The Art of Charles R. Knight". In Paul, Gregory S. (ed.). The Scientific American Book of Dinosaurs. New York: St. Martin's Press. pp. 113–118. ISBN 0-312-26226-4. 
  9. ^ Padian, Kevin (2004). "An Agenda for Antiquity: Henry Fairfield Osborn and Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History, 1890–1935 and Henry Fairfield Osborn: Race and the search for the origins of man". Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 24 (3): 769–771. doi:10.1671/0272-4634(2004)024[0769:AAFAHF]2.0.CO;2. 
  10. ^ Bakker, Robert T. (1986). The Dinosaur Heresies. New York: William Morrow. p. 203. ISBN 0-14-010055-5. 
  11. ^ a b c Sarjeant, William A.S. (2001). "Dinosaurs in fiction". In Tanke, Darren H.; and Carpenter, K. (eds.). Mesozoic Vertebrate Life. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. pp. 504–529. ISBN 0-253-33907-3. 
  12. ^ Searles, Baird (1988). "Dinosaurs and others". Films of Science Fiction and Fantasy. New York: AFI Press. pp. 104–116. ISBN 0-8109-0922-7. 
  13. ^ a b c d e Lambert, David; and the Diagram Group (1990). The Dinosaur Data Book. New York: Avon Books. pp. 290–301. ISBN 0-380-75896-3. 
  14. ^ a b c d Paul, Gregory S. (2000). "A Quick History of Dinosaur Art". In Paul, Gregory S. (ed.). The Scientific American Book of Dinosaurs. New York: St. Martin's Press. pp. 107–112. ISBN 0-312-26226-4. 
  15. ^ Romer, Alfred Sherwood (1956). Osteology of the Reptiles. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 1–772. ISBN 0-89464985-X. 
  16. ^ Bakker, Robert T. The Dinosaur Heresies, 447-449.
  17. ^ Bakker, Robert T. The Dinosaur Heresies, 15-16.
  18. ^ "Definition of dinosaur" Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary. Accessed 26 May 2007.
  19. ^ Snider, Mike (2006-08-29). "Godzilla arouses atomic terror". USA Today (Gannett Corporation). Retrieved 2007-02-21. 
  20. ^ Ostrom, J. H. (1969). "Osteology of Deinonychus antirrhopus, an unusual theropod from the Lower Cretaceous of Montana". Peabody Museum of Natural History Bulletin 30: 1–165. OCLC 679420. 
  21. ^ The term has entered into common usage after an article of the same name by paleontologist Robert T. Bakker in Scientific American, in April 1975. Examples can be found here and here.
  22. ^ Ostrom, John (1974). "Archaeopteryx and the origin of flight". The Quarterly Review of Biology 49 (1): 27. doi:10.1086/407902. 
  23. ^ Bakker, Robert T. (1968). "The superiority of dinosaurs". Discovery 3 (2): 11–22. 
  24. ^ Bakker, Robert T.; and Galton, Peter M. (1974). "Dinosaur monophyly and a new class of vertebrates". Nature 248 (5444): 168–172. Bibcode 1974Natur.248..168B. doi:10.1038/248168a0. 
  25. ^ Horner, John R.; and Makela, Robert (1979). "Nest of juveniles provides evidence of family-structure among dinosaurs". Nature 282 (5736): 296–298. doi:10.1038/282296a0. 
  26. ^ Roth, Andrew (2006-02-14). "Jim Gary". The Guardian. Retrieved 2008-08-06. 
  27. ^ Celeskey, Matt (2006-01-17). "Sculptor Jim Gary dies". Hairy Museum of Natural History. Retrieved 2008-08-06. 
  28. ^ a b c d e f g Lucas, Spencer G. (2000). "Dinosaurs in the public eye". Dinosaurs: The Textbook (3rd ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill. pp. 247–260. ISBN 0-07-303642-0. 
  29. ^ "dinosaur". Lexico Publishing Group, LLC. Retrieved 2008-08-06. 
  30. ^ Bussy, Pascal (2004). Kraftwerk: Man, Machine, and Music (Revised Updated ed.). SAF Publishing Ltd. p. 87. ISBN 0946719705. 
  31. ^ Farlow, James O. and Brett-Surman, Michael K. The Complete Dinosaur, Plate 22.
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