A Great Dinosaur Enigma Solved!

I maintain a healthy interest in palaeontology these days, but looking back to the dinosaur-obsessed days of my childhood, I’m amazed just how much our knowledge of dinosaurs has changed. Things I thought I knew then are totally out of date now – most obviously, a surprisingly large proportion of the dinosaurs in my books should have been pictured with feathers – to the point that it’s hard to get completely back on track.

For all the apparent certainties of those earlier days, it was still made clear that there was a lot palaeontologists didn’t know. One example that turned up a lot in my books and magazines was an animal called Deinocheirus mirificus. Discovered in Mongolia in 1965, it was based on very incomplete remains, which is nothing unusual for dinosaurs. What was unusual was that this animal was clearly a giant; if not as big as T. rex, then certainly not far off. Its arms were 2.4 metres long – hence the name Deinocheirus, which means “terrible hand”.

But with two arms and not much more to go on, palaeontologists couldn’t say much about what Deinocheirus looked like and how it lived. The structure of the arms suggested that it belonged to the group of dinosaurs known as ornithomimosaurs, also called “ostrich dinosaurs”, as they looked very much like ostriches – slender heads, toothless beaks and long necks. (And yes, they probably had feathers too.) Here’s an example called Gallimimus:


So on the rare occasion when I saw a speculative picture of Deinocheirus in my books, they portrayed it similarly as a reptilian ostrich – the size of T. rex. But nobody was certain, and with the incompleteness of the fossil record, it seemed like a mystery that might never be solved.

So imagine my surprise when I checked BBC News on Thursday and found that a paper had been published in Nature on two much more complete specimens of Deinocheirus discovered in 2006 and 2009! The gap has been filled! We now have an idea of what Deinocheirus looked like! And it looked like….this:

Not exactly an ostrich, then.

Deinocheirus, like many dinosaurs discovered in the last decade or so, is downright strange-looking – which is really much more interesting than if it actually was what had been expected, isn’t it?

I find it very exciting that this gap in our knowledge on dinosaurs has now been filled, and that once again, it’s like nothing that could have been imagined. All these new discoveries seem to make the prehistoric world even more fascinating and diverse than I thought it was in my childhood. I hope there are still plenty of children who are into dinosaurs right now – it seems like a good time for it.

About R.J. Southworth

Hi there. I've been blogging since January 2014, and I like to talk about all sorts of things: book reviews, film reviews, writing, science, history, or sometimes just sharing miscellaneous thoughts. Thanks for visiting my blog, and I hope you find something that interests you!
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3 Responses to A Great Dinosaur Enigma Solved!

  1. Jay Dee says:

    That is one strange-looking dinosaur. I was also a big dinosaur fan when I was a kid. I was lucky to grow up in the dinosaur-rich Alberta in Canada.


    • It reminds me of some of the current depictions of therizinosaurs with their pot bellies – even though, according to the abstract, Deinocheirus is still considered an ornithomimosaur. Possibly a case of convergent evolution.

      I’d like to get to Alberta someday and check out the museums there. I did manage to do some real fossil hunting in my own country earlier this year, on the beach in Lyme Regis, where I found some ammonites and belemnites.


      • Jay Dee says:

        Alberta’s got some great museums. Royal Tyrrell is amazing. Royal Alberta Museum is pretty good, though they’re building a new one right now. And the Philip J. Currie museum is also under construction.

        I’d love to go out searching for fossils. Where I live, it’s difficult. Mostly city and plenty of volcanic rock.


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