Retro vs Modern #13: Stegosaurus stenops

The first known stegosaur fossils were found in England and South Africa between the 1840s and 1870s, but these dinosaurs weren’t properly recognized as a highly distinctive group until the discovery of Stegosaurus itself in North America during the late 1870s.


The first Stegosaurus reconstructions were based on fragmentary and disarticulated fossil material, and its life appearance was very poorly understood. Initially it was depicted as a bipedal long-necked animal, with its plates laying flat against its back like a turtle shell, numerous spikes across its back, and more plates running along its tail.


Better skeletons of the species Stegosaurus stenops were discovered in the late 1880s, and by the 1890s stegosaur anatomy was becoming clearer. Reconstructions quickly adopted an arch-backed body shape with a tiny head and drooping tail, short semi-sprawling forelimbs and long hindlimbs, and with the plates now properly upright on the back and the spikes at the end of the tail.

Stegosaurus‘ unique appearance rapidly made it one of the most famous and recognizable dinosaurs to the general public. Its comical-seeming tiny head and even tinier brain also unfortunately ended up contributing to the prevailing early 20th century attitude that dinosaurs were sluggish and unintelligent, with the myth that it needed a “second brain” in its hips to control its huge body becoming a popular notion for quite some time.

The exact arrangement of the iconic back plates and tail spikes was uncertain for several decades, with early versions in the 1890s having up to eight tail spikes and a single row of plates. This was then updated in the 1900s to a double row of symmetrical plate pairs, and by the 1920s the standard arrangment had soon become an alternating two-row pattern with the tail spikes reduced to four – a layout that’s still considered correct today.


In the second half of the 20th century a combination of numerous new stegosaur species from China and the Dinosaur Renaissance began to revise the way Stegosaurus was understood, bringing it into a fully upright posture with its head and tail held high, and recognizing the convergently sauropod-like anatomy of its hands and feet.

But something still wasn’t right.

Compared to other known stegosaurs, Stegosaurus itself was starting to seem… rather weird. Its short neck, short forelegs, giant plates, sloping back and high rump were much more exaggeratedly proportioned than any of its relatives.

This was finally resolved in the 2010s when a near-complete specimen nicknamed “Sophie” was thoroughly described – and revealed that Stegosaurus’ proportions had been wrong the whole time. All previous skeletal reconstructions had been composites, put together from remains of multiple individuals that had all been different ages and sizes, and in the process had heavily distorted our idea of what this animal actually looked like.

Our modern view of Stegosaurus is now a much more typical stegosaur than before. It lived during the Late Jurassic, about 155-145 million years ago, across the Western and South Central United States (with a possible additional occurence in Portugal), alongside several other iconic dinosaurs of the “Jurassic savanna” like Brontosaurus, Diplodocus, and Allosaurus.

It grew up to around 9m long (~30ft), and had a small head with a long narrow snout, with a toothless beak at the front of its jaws and small peg-shaped teeth further back. Bony ossicles lined the underside of its neck, possibly providing chainmail-like protection to its throat, and its skin was covered in tiny pebbly scales interspersed with “rosettes” formed around slightly larger oval scales. Its neck was longer than previously thought, more in line with other stegosaurs, and its torso and hind legs were a bit shorter, making its posture more horizontal and its back less arched.

The actual function of the large back plates is still uncertain. Ideas about them being defensive armor (and speculation about them even being moveable!) have mostly been discounted at this point, since they were actually relatively fragile – although their keratinous covering may have had a fairly sharp edge. Thermoregulation has been a popular explanation for many decades, with blood vessel impressions in the plates being proposed as evidence they were used as “radiators” to prevent overheating like the ears of modern African elephants.

But currently the most likely primary plate function is thought to be visual display, with the large plates increasing the perceived size of Stegosaurus either to intimidate predators and rivals or to impress potential mates. If this was the case then they may have also been strikingly colored and patterned in life.

Meanwhile the “thagomizer” on its tail actually does seem to have been a weapon, with injuries to that area of the body being fairly common, and several Allosaurus fossils have been found with puncture wounds the exact size and shape of Stegosaurus spikes. Articulated specimens have also shown that the tail curved downwards at the tip, holding the thagomizer with the spikes pointing horizontally outwards and backwards.

Retro vs Modern #12: Edmontosaurus annectens

Hadrosaurs were first discovered during the 1850s in North America, with the eponymous Hadrosaurus being both one of the most complete dinosaurs known at the time and also the first dinosaur skeleton to ever be mounted and displayed.

Like many other dinosaurs of the time hadrosaurs were initially reconstructed as bipedal with an upright kangaroo-like pose. Early in the history of their study their wide flat “duckbill” snouts were thought to indicate they were semi-aquatic, and they were frequently portrayed swimming and wading while feeding on soft water plants.

While elaborately bony-crested hadrosaurs like Parasaurolophus have become some of the most famous and recognizable members of the group, the species that’s gone through the most radical changes in our understanding in recent years is probably Edmontosaurus annectens.


Edmontosaurus has had an especially messy taxonomic history with various specimens spending decades under many different names, commonly being labelled as Anatosaurus and Trachodon for much of the 20th century. For the sake of avoiding a lot of confusion I’m just going to keep referring to it here as “Edmontosaurus”, even though the naming issues weren’t properly sorted out until the 1990s.

The earliest specimen of what we know call Edmontosaurus was discovered in the 1890s, and the first to actually bear the genus name was the closely related species Edmontosaurus regalis discovered in the 1910s. For many decades it was mostly reconstructed in the then-typical “tripod” posture and seen as being highly aquatic, with an exceptionally well-preserved “dinosaur mummy” specimen being used to support that view – skin impressions around its hands were interpreted as paddle-like webbing used to swim.

The mummy also showed fairly thin and delicate skin, with a pattern of many tiny scales dotted with clusters of larger scales, and what appeared to be a fleshy skin frill running along Edmontosaurus’ neck and back.


The idea of amphibious hadrosaurs was finally challenged in the mid-1960s, at the start of the Dinosaur Renaissance, with details of their anatomy, possible stomach contents, and the environments that their fossils had been preserved in all being used to help reinterpret them as fully terrestrial herbivores that walked on four legs and ran on two. The discovery of Maiasaura nesting colonies in the late 1970s also revealed a lot of new information about the life history of these dinosaurs, and helped to popularize the image of them as social animals living in herds and caring for their young.

From the 1990s onwards new discoveries of additional “mummies” of both Edmontosaurus and other hadrosaurs have given us even more insights into the soft parts of their anatomy. Their necks and tails were much more thickly muscled and chunky than their skeletons alone suggest, the frill may have had a sort of rectangular segmented appearance, and the webbing on their forelimbs was actually more of a “mitten” that bound their hands into fleshy weight-bearing pads. And instead of a broad “duckbill” they actually had large hooked beaks covering their snouts, giving then more of a horse-like head shape.

We now know Edmontosaurus lived during the very end of the Cretaceous, about 73-66 million years ago, with the older part of that time range represented by Edmontosaurus regalis in Western Canada and the younger part represented by Edmontosaurus annectens in Western Canada and the Western and West North Central United States. It was one of the largest known hadrosaurs with most adult specimens around 9-12m long (~30-39′), but some of the very largest known partial remains suggest the existence of rare enormous “super-adults” that were about 15m long (49′).

Edmontosaurus was probably a grazing animal primarily eating tough low-growing foliage like horsetails, cropping off mouthfuls with its beak and then grinding them up with batteries of hundreds of teeth in the back of its jaws using a unique complex chewing motion.

Its skin had a complex texture of varying scale shapes and sizes across its body, and one mummified specimen of Edmontosaurus regalis shows a raised bumpy pattern of large scale clusters on its neck and a fleshy crest on the top of its head. It’s currently unclear if these were sexually dimorphic features and we don’t know if Edmontosaurus annectens actually had them too, but I’ve speculatively included them in this reconstruction anyway.

And despite being one of the most intensely-studied and completely known non-avian dinosaurs in the world, Edmontosaurus is somehow still continuing to surprise us. Parts of the mummy specimen nicknamed “Dakota” are still being carefully prepared, and in late 2019 the North Dakota Geological Survey teased an unexpected discovery – a large single hoof-like nail on the front of its hand, unlike anything ever seen before on a dinosaur, and suggesting that Edmontosaurus may have been much more specialized for purely quadrupedal movement than previously thought.

Official details on the “hoof” still haven’t been published yet, but whenever it happens it’ll be exciting to find out just what’s actually going on there.

Retro vs Modern #11: Brontosaurus excelsus

Discovered in the Western United States during the 1870s, in the early years of the Bone Wars, Brontosaurus excelsus was one of the most complete sauropod dinosaurs known at the time.


In the early 1900s the genus name Brontosaurus was declared invalid and it was reclassified as a species of the very-closely-related Apatosaurus, renaming it to Apatosaurus excelsus – but this change took decades to be recognized outside of scientific literature, and by that time the “Brontosaurus” name had already stuck in pop culture. With the prominence of the name’s use in early 20th century museum displays and its charismatic meaning of “thunder lizard”, it rapidly became one of the most famous and recognizable dinosaurs to the general public.

Like most sauropods of the time Brontosaurus was generally portrayed as a large bulky lizard-like creature with an arched back, thick elephant-like legs, and a long dragging tail. Opinions on its neck posture varied over time, ranging from low-slung and horizontal to highly vertical, and it was commonly depicted wallowing lazily half-submerged in swamps due to sometimes being considered too big to easily support its own weight on land.

And along with spending most of the century with the wrong name, Brontosaurus also spent most of it with the wrong head. While a slender Diplodocus-like skull had been found close to the rest of an Apatosaurus skeleton in the early 1900s, it was rejected by some paleontologists and both Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus were instead given boxy Camarasaurus-like skulls that were thought to be more fitting for such big beefy-necked sauropods.


The Dinosaur Renaissance in the late 20th century completely revolutionized the understanding of sauropods and their biology. They were dragged out of the swamps and put properly back onto dry land, reinterpreted as active animals with their long tails held up off the ground and bird-like air sacs lightening their bodies.

The correct skull shape for Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus was also finally recognized in the late 1970s, and during the the 1990s and early 2000s a very horizontal neck posture became the standard depiction for this type of diplodocid sauropod. But by the 2010s this was being argued as biomechanically wrong – animals usually hold their necks at a much higher angle than the bones alone would suggest, and sauropods almost certainly did the same.

And then in 2015 the name Brontosaurus was reinstated as valid after all, in a massively thorough analysis of the diplodocid family that found enough physical differences between Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus to justify them both being separate genera again.

So our modern view of Brontosaurus excelsus (formerly known as Apatosaurus excelsus, even-more-formerly known as Brontosaurus excelsus) is a large sauropod that grew to around 22m long (72′). It lived during the Late Jurassic, about 156-146 million years ago, at a time when the supercontinent of Pangaea was starting to break apart and much of Western North America was a warm and semi-arid “Jurassic savanna” environment.

Its head was small and fairly delicate, similar to that of Diplodocus, atop a wide deep neck with chunky vertebrae. It had a deep chest and stout limbs, with its hands being semi-tubular pillars with a single “thumb” claw, and its feet having three large curved claws. Its tail made up over half its body length and was relatively slender, tapering into a long whip-like tip that may have been able to make loud cracking sounds like a bullwhip.

It was probably capable of briefly rearing up to reach higher vegetation, and small juveniles may even have been able to run on just their hind legs.

Soft tissue impressions from other diplodocids show keratinous spines running along the top of their tails, and complex variation in the sizes and shapes of scales across different parts of their bodies – so Brontosaurus may have been similarly ornamented.

Retro vs Modern #10: Plateosaurus trossingensis

First discovered in southeast Germany in the 1930s, Plateosaurus was only the fifth non-avian dinosaur known to science – but its fossils were fragmentary and poorly understood until the early 20th century, when large bonebeds full of much better specimens began to be excavated.


Between the 1910s and 1930s around 80 near-complete skeletons of Plateosaurus were found in two German quarries, quickly making it one of the most abundant and best known dinosaur species of the time. Although it had previously been classified as a theropod dinosaur, in the 1920s the more complete material allowed it to be properly identified as a “prosauropod“, an early herbivorous relative of the giant sauropods

Like many bipedal dinosaurs during this period Plateosaurus was generally interpreted as having an upright kangaroo-like posture with a dragging tail – although some paleontologists were arguing for it having a sprawling quadrupedal lizard-like stance as late as the mid-1930s.


Unfortunately much of the German fossil material was destroyed during World War II bombing raids, and interest in Plateosaurus didn’t pick up again until the time of the Dinosaur Renaissance when a third major fossil site was discovered in Switzerland during the 1970s.

Plateosaurus was reinterpreted with a horizontal body posture and fully upright limbs. As an early member of the sauropodomorph lineage it was often depicted as a transitional form between bipedal ancestral dinosaurs and the later quadrupedal sauropods, thought to primarily walk on all fours but also able to run on its hind legs like a hadrosaur – although some studies instead concluded it was fully quadrupedal with a downwards-curling tail that made bipedal movement impossible.

The large numbers of skeletons found together were considered to represent evidence for herding behavior, with groups of Plateosaurus being caught in catastrophic mudflows all at once.


Extensive biomechanical studies in the 2000s and early 2010s clarified what sort of posture Plateosaurus was really capable of. It was found to be completely unable to position its arms in a quadrupedal stance, and so was actually purely bipedal – and skeletons that had been mounted in the quadrupedal position had needed many of their joints to be completely dislocated to achieve the pose!

A huge number of different Plateosaurus species had been named over the genus’ nearly-200-years of history, too, creating a confusing mess of dubious and invalid names. These were all finally revised in 2019 leaving just three valid species, with Plateosaurus trossingensis as the best known and the new type species.

We now know Plateosaurus lived across central and northern Europe during the Late Triassic, around 214-204 million years ago, at a time when the region had a subtropical climate. It had a small head on a long flexible neck, with teeth convergently resembling those of modern iguanas suggesting it was probably primarily herbivorous (with possible opportunistic omnivory). Its arms were proportionally short for a prosauropod but were well-adapted for grasping, with large claws that may have been used to dig up roots and tear down branches

It had a rapid growth rate and bird-like lungs and air sacs that suggest it was warm-blooded, and different individuals showed an unusually high amount of variation in adult size and age of maturity. Some appear to have been fully grown at about 5m long (~16′) and as young as 12 years old, while others reached 10m long (~33′), and were still growing at 27 years old.

The bonebeds are no longer thought to represent mass mortalities of herds, but instead were probably a scenario more similar to the La Brea Tar Pits – mud-miring traps that smaller lighter animals could escape from but larger individuals became stuck and died.

No prosauropod skin impressions have been found yet, so it’s still unknown whether Plateosaurus was scaly like later sauropods or if it had some degree of protofeather hair-like fuzz.

Retro vs Modern #09: Hallucigenia sparsa

If just one single species had to represent how our reconstructions of prehistoric animals can drastically change, it would have to be Hallucigenia sparsa.


First discovered in the 1910s in the Canadian Burgess Shale fossil deposits, specimens of Hallucigenia were initially categorized as being a species of the early polychaete worm Canadia. It wasn’t until the 1970s that they were recognized as being something else entirely, and the first reconstruction of this tiny animal was bizarre.

It was depicted as a long-bodied creature with a single row of tentacles along its back, and several pairs of long sharp spines that were interpreted as being stilt-like “legs” used to walk. The tentacles were thought to catch food from the water and pass it forwards to the bulbous “head” – and at one point it was even proposed that all the tentacles had their own additional “mouths” at their tips!

It’s easy to look back on this version now and laugh at how ridiculous and obviously wrong it was, but it’s important to remember the historical context here. This was coming from a point when the incredible animal diversity of the Cambrian Explosion was only just starting to be understood, revealing a range of poorly-understood bizarre and alien-looking forms like Opabinia – “weird wonders” that were considered to be representatives of previously unknown ancient branches of life.

At the time, Hallucigenia‘s utter weirdness and impractical body plan seemed to almost make sense as a unique evolutionary “failed experiment” that had left no living relatives.


Discoveries of legged-and-armored lobopodian “worms” in the Chinese Chengjiang fossil deposits during the 1980s prompted a re-interpretation of Hallucigenia in the early 1990s. Speculatively reconstructing it as a lobopodian with the spines on its back and with the tentacles as a set of paired clawed legs started to make it seem a lot less alien and a lot more like a real velvet-worm-like animal – and just a year later the “missing” other half of the leg pairs was confirmed to be present in some of the fossil specimens.

But it was still unclear which end was actually the head, and whether the large blob-like structure was a real part of Hallucigenia‘s anatomy or just an artifact of the fossilization process.


New research in the mid-2010s finally settled the head problem and clarified a lot of Hallugicenia‘s anatomy, discovering that the slender elongated end had a pair of simple eyes and a mouth with a throat ringed with tiny teeth.

We now know Hallucigenia sparsa lived all around the world during the mid-Cambrian, about 518-508 million years ago, with body fossils known from Canada and China and isolated spines found in numerous other similarly-aged locations. Instead of an evolutionary dead-end “weird wonder” it was actually an early member of the vast arthropod lineage, just one of a highly diverse collection of successful Cambrian lobopodians, and its closest living relatives are probably velvet worms and tardigrades.

It grew up to about 5cm long (2″) and had seven pairs of long sharp defensive spines along its back, covered with a microscopic surface texture of tiny triangular “scales”. It had seven pairs of clawed walking legs, with most of its feet tipped with two claws each but the final two pairs having just one, and its body ended right at the final pair of limbs – the “blob” structure in some fossils was actually just an artifact the whole time, formed by Halligenia‘s innards being forcefully squeezed out during its burial in the seafloor sediment.

Its neck region bore three pairs of long delicate tendril-like limbs, which may have been covered in feathery hair-like structures for filter-feeding similar to some other lobopodians. A small pair of velvet-worm-like antennae may also have been present on its head, and could have been a sexually dimorphic feature.

Retro vs Modern #08: Helicoprion davisii

First discovered in Western Australia in the mid-1880s, the bizarre-toothed eugeneodont cartilaginous fish Helicoprion davisii was initially mistaken for a species of the equally weird Edestus. It was eventually recognized as part of a separate genus over a decade later, when similar fossils of its close relative Helicoprion bessonowi were found in the Ural Mountains.


With Helicoprion only known from strange buzzsaw-like spiral whorls, the function and location of this structure in the fish’s body was a huge source of confusion for over a century.

The earliest interpretation was a defensive structure curling upwards from the snout, then as part of the tail or dorsal fins. It was soon realized to probably be part of the lower jaw instead, but the exact arrangement was still a mystery.

A downward-curling position was popular in reconstructions for much of the 20th century. From the 1960s onwards, however, discoveries of preserved skull cartilage and soft-tissue body outlines of other eugeneodont species began to give a better idea of what these fish were and what they looked like. They were identified as being related to modern chimaeras, but with a very different appearance – they had streamlined shark-like bodies with large triangular pectoral fins, a single dorsal fin, no pelvic or anal fins at all, and broad keels along the sides of their tails.

A single tooth whorl sat in the middle of the lower jaw, with its sides covered by skin, and the largest and youngest teeth formed at the back before spiralling forwards, downwards, and inwards.

In the 1990s a “pizza-cutter” reconstruction gave Helicoprion long narrow jaws with the whorl positioned very far forwards, sawing and crushing prey against the underside of the snout. A version with the whorl very deep inside the throat was also proposed in 2008, but only a year later a new variant of the pizza-cutter saw-jaw model suggested the presence of a specialized “pocket” in the upper jaw lined with teeth.


Finally, in 2013, CT scanning of a Helicoprion specimen originally discovered in the 1960s revealed something incredibly special – an almost complete three-dimensionally preserved and articulated set of jaws. It showed narrow jaws that were shorter than the previous reconstructions, with the whorl occupying the entire lower jaw and braced by cartilage on each side.

We now know Helicoprion davisii was found worldwide during the early-to-mid Permian, about 272-268 million years ago, and based on some of the biggest known tooth whorls it may have reached sizes of up to 8m long (~26′), similar in size to modern basking sharks. It continuously added new and larger teeth to its whorl throughout its life, with the smaller older teeth being retained instead of shed, slowly pushed into a tight spiral deep inside the lower jaw.

The upper jaw formed a sheath-like pocket lined with a “pavement” of numerous tiny rounded teeth, and as Helicoprion closed its jaws the various parts of the whorl simultaneously grabbed, sliced, and pulled prey further into its mouth – a mechanism possibly specialized for efficiently de-shelling cephalopods like ammonites and nautiloids.

Retro vs Modern #07: Mosasaurus hoffmannii

The first scientifically documented mosasaur fossils were skulls discovered in the Netherlands during the 1760s and 1770s, but these remains were initially interpreted as belonging to a fish, crocodile, or whale. In the late 1790s their resemblance to monitor lizards was noted, and the fossils were soon recognized as belonging to giant marine reptiles unlike any known living species – a revolutionary concept at the time, and influential in the early development of ideas about extinction.

In the 1820s Mosasaurus hoffmannii was the first species officially described. For several decades it was thought to be a giant amphibious lizard with either webbed feet or flipper-like legs, with one of the earliest popular reconstructions being the 1850s Crystal Palace statue.

By the 1870s more complete fossil discoveries in North America had revealed the paddle-like flippers and fully aquatic nature of mosasaurs. Skin impressions showed overlapping keeled diamond-shaped scales resembling those of rattlesnakes, but proportionally much smaller compared to their body size.


Then, in the late 1890s, one mosasaur specimen was interpreted as having a mane-like “fringe” of soft tissue along its back.

Only a few years later this was realized to be a mistake, actually being preserved tracheal cartilage, but it was too late. The idea had already caught on in artistic depictions and quickly became a paleoart meme, with mosasaurs frequently portrayed with elaborate frills for the majority of the next century.


Early arguments about whether mosasaurs’ closest relatives were monitor lizards or snakes had settled down by the 1920s, with the consensus at the time being monitor lizards, and the first half of the 20th century saw little mosasaur research beyond the naming of a few new species. Much like the ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs it was only really in the wake of the Dinosaur Renaissance that interest in these marine reptiles and their paleobiology really began to pick up again.

Rather than sea-serpent-like creatures we now recognize that mosasaurs actually looked more like lizards converging on whales or ichthyosaurs, with smooth streamlined bodies and vertical tail flukes. The size and shape of their scales varied across different parts of their bodies, parts of their bodies had dark coloration (likely with a countershaded pattern), and they probably had forked tongues.

They had a higher metabolic rate than most modern lizards, and may even have been warm-blooded. They probably also gave birth to live young, although a recently-discovered fossil soft-shelled egg found in Antarctica has been suggested to have come from a large mosasaur.

The debate about their evolutionary relationships has been reignited, too, with some recent studies once again supporting a very close relationship to snakes – although there’s currently no clear consensus.

Our modern view of Mosasaurus hoffmannii is a large chunky mosasaur that grew to at least 11m long (~36′). It lived during the end of the Cretaceous period, about 70-66 million years ago, and inhabited a wide range of climates across much of the ancient Atlantic Ocean and various connected shallow seaways, with fossils known from Europe, Africa, and North and South America.

Its long jaws had a powerful bite force and it seems to have been a more visual hunter than some other mosasaurs, with relatively large eyes and a less well-developed sense of smell. It was one of the largest marine animals of its time and was probably a generalist apex predator, feeding on a wide variety of prey such as fish, ammonites, and other marine reptiles.

Retro vs Modern #06: Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus

Plesiosaurs were first recognized as a distinct group of fossil animals in the early 1820s, only a few years after ichthyosaurs. Initially they were perceived as being closer in form to reptiles in the “chain of being” than the more fish-like ichthyosaurs were, and so the group’s scientific name ended up reflecting that early interpretation – “plesiosaur” roughly translates to “near to reptiles”.

The first named species of plesiosaur was Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus, based on a near-complete skeleton discovered by Mary Anning that revealed the strange long-necked proportions of these animals for the first time.


Early reconstructions of plesiosaurs in the 1830s compared them to “a snake threaded through a turtle”, giving them highly sinuous necks and a turtle-like body. Much like ichthyosaurs they were assumed to be amphibious, using their flippers to crawl up onto the shore like a sea turtle.

The 1850s Crystal Palace plesiosaur statues show a variant of this design with smooth skin textures and fairly flexible reptilian bodies, with powerful shoulders and flipper postures that give them an overall almost seal-like appearance.


From the 1860s onwards a more upright S-shaped neck pose became the most common depiction of plesiosaurs. The writhing snake-like necks persisted in some reconstructions of the extremely long-necked elasmosaurids, but the overall design for these animals that caught hold for the next century was an egg-shaped body with oar-like flippers and a swan-like neck – a body plan that would end up so influential in pop culture that it was incorporated into modern lake monster folklore, with the Loch Ness Monster being the most famous example.

During this period plesiosaurs were often portrayed as floating or swimming at the water’s surface, rowing along with their flippers and using their long necks to snatch up prey. They were generally assumed to still haul out turtle-style to lay their eggs on the shore, although it wasn’t clear how the very largest species would have been able to support their own weight.


Since the 1990s a boom of new plesiosaur species and biomechanical studies have brought a lot of changes to our understanding of these marine reptiles.

Their necks are now considered to have been less flexible, capable only of more gentle curving, and were probably much thicker and more streamlined with the body than previously depicted. Rather than oar-like rowing all four of their flippers were probably used in more of an “underwater flying” vertical motion similar to modern sea turtles – which is pretty fitting, considering that their closest living relatives are now thought to actually be turtles.

They gave live birth and were probably warm-blooded, with a thick layer of insulating blubbery fat and a teardrop-shaped body outline. Their skin texture was smooth, but one exceptionally well-preserved specimen shows a covering of tiny thin millimeter-sized scales that wouldn’t have been visible in life except in extreme closeup.

We now know Plesiosaurus itself was a fairly small species, around 3.5m long (~11’6″), with a broad body and a short thick tail that probably had a rudder-like fin – usually assumed to be vertically-oriented, but possibly horizontal instead. It lived during the Early Jurassic, about 201-183 million years ago, in the shallow tropical sea that covered what is now southern England, and had a rather small head compared to other plesiosaurs, with its eyes facing upwards and to the sides.

It had sharp needle-like teeth that would have been used to catch soft-bodied aquatic prey like fish and cephalopods. It’s not known whether it had extensive fleshy lips, croc-like snaggletoothed jaws, or something in-between, so the facial soft tissue on this particular reconstruction is rather speculative.

Retro vs Modern #05: Ichthyosaurus communis

Fossilized ichthyosaur bones have been found for centuries, but were initially misidentified as being the remains of fish, dolphins, and crocodiles. More complete skeletons began to be discovered in the early 19th century – particularly by pioneering paleontologist Mary Anning – and Ichthyosaurus communis was one of the first species of these ancient “fish lizards” to be scientifically recognized.


Early reconstructions of ichthyosaurs in the 1830s depicted flippered crocodile-like animals with long straight eel-like tails and strangely shrinkwrapped features, showing the sclerotic rings of their eyes and the internal bones of their flippers as highly visible externally. They were also frequently portrayed as being amphibious, hauling themselves out of the water to bask.

By the late 1830s impressions of smooth scaleless skin had been found, and specimens with tail-tips that were always “broken” in the exact same place were interpreted as evidence of the presence of some sort of paddle-like tail fin. The 1850s Crystal Palace Ichthyosaurus statues show this slightly updated version, along with a low dorsal ridge on their backs reminiscent of a beluga whale.


From the 1880s onwards the discovery of exceptional ichthyosaur specimens preserving whole body outlines revealed a fully aquatic streamlined shape, a triangular dorsal fin, and a crescent-shaped vertical tail fluke. Numerous examples of fossilized pregnant females also showed that ichthyosaurs gave live birth rather than laying eggs.

This highly dolphin-like version of ichthyosaurs quickly caught on and became the standard depiction into the early 20th century, frequently showing them as highly active animals – swimming in groups, chasing fish and ammonites, and leaping dramatically out of the water like their modern cetacean counterparts. While we don’t actually know if they were social or acrobatic like dolphins, it was still a surprising and refreshing contrast to the increasingly lumpy and sluggish depictions of non-avian dinosaurs that were happening around the same time.

Actual further paleontological study on ichthyosaurs was scarce for decades, however, with a general attitude that the group was already scientifically “complete” and there wasn’t much new or interesting left to learn about them anymore. It wasn’t until the late 20th century that they began to have their own “ichthyosaur renaissance” alongside the dinosaurs, with a sharp rise in research in the last few decades bringing us a lot of new information about their diversity and biology.

Ichthyosaurus communis was just one of several species in the Ichthyosaurus genus, living during the Early Jurassic, about 196-183 million years ago, in the shallow tropical seas of what is now Europe. About 3.3m long (~11′), it was adapted for high-speed long-distance swimming like a modern tuna, and it probably had a large keeled peduncle on the sides of its tail.

Bone structure and isotope analysis show that ichthyosaurs were all warm-blooded. One exceptional specimen also preserves an insulating layer of cetacean-like blubber, along with some evidence of its coloration: overall darker on the top and lighter on the underside in a countershaded pattern.

(I’ve given this reconstruction some speculative disruptive camouflage, too.)

Some of the preserved pigmentation has enough microscopic detail to show what appear to be branched melanophore cells associated with the ability to change color – suggesting that ichthyosaurs may have been able to actively darken and lighten their coloration like some modern lizards.

Retro vs Modern #04: Archaeopteryx lithographica

Archaeopteryx lithographica was first discovered in the 1860s, still in the early days of our understanding of dinosaurs, and was a timely example of the sort of transitional form first proposed by Charles Darwin only a couple of years earlier. For over a century it was a famous icon of evolution, and has been part of a lot of weird drama over the years – it’s been central to arguments about bird origins, was accused of being a fake, and one specimen even vanished under mysterious circumstances.


At the time of its discovery Archaeopteryx was actually fairly quickly accepted as demonstrating an evolutionary link between dinosaurs and birds… but sadly this view wasn’t to last.

In the early 20th century opinion shifted towards birds not being dinosaurs but instead descended from “thecodont” reptiles (what we’d now call early archosaurs and pseudosuchians). And so for a long time Archaeopteryx ended up being depicted as simply the “first bird”, a half-reptile half-avian curiosity.

Reconstructions of it from this time period varied from very good to kind of awkward depending on how much the artist was trying to emphasize its reptilian ancestry, commonly featuring wonky-fingered wings and a scaly lizard-like face. It was also frequently depicted with bright gaudy parrot-like coloration, with a specific yellow-and-blue color scheme becoming a “paleoart meme” so prolific that it would eventually inspire the design of a Pokémon.


After decades of stagnation the dinosaur-bird link was resurrected in the early 1970s, with the discovery of the bird-like Deinonychus kicking off the Dinosaur Renaissance. Along with the explosion of spectacularly feathered dinosaur fossils from China in the mid-1990s, Archaeopteryx finally began to be properly presented as a feathered dinosaur again.

Continued study of the known Archaeopteryx specimens in the last couple of decades has vastly improved our knowledge of what this animal would have looked like, revealing previously unknown features like the exact plumage arrangement on its wings and legs, and even potentially some details about its coloration.

Living in southern Germany during the Late Jurassic, about 150-148 million years ago, Archaeopteryx inhabited what was then an island archipelago in a shallow tropical sea. It grew to around 50cm long (~1’8″) and was almost entirely covered with pennaceous feathers, externally probably just looking like a long-tailed bird.

It had broad wings, with asymmetrical flight feathers similar to those of modern birds but with more extensive coverts, some of which were probably a matte black color. Its legs also sported long “feather trousers” and a “raptor“-like hyperextensible second toe, and there was a slight forked shape to the tip of its tail.

Arguments have gone back and forth about how well it was actually able to fly, with current thinking being that it made short bursts of active flapping flight a little like a modern pheasant – but since its shoulder joints were less mobile than those of modern birds it must have used a different sort of flight stroke to generate lift.

It’s no longer always considered to have been the “first bird”, or even to have been the direct ancestor of any modern birds. Instead it represents an offshoot lineage of early birds (or very-bird-like dinosaurs) that was just one part of a still-expanding flock of feathery fossil discoveries.