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New dinosaurs are being discovered in record numbers, and it’s changing everything we thought we knew

Published Feb 20th, 2018 10:58AM EST

Every kid grows up loving dinosaurs. As we grow older we listen to science teachers explain how dinosaurs lived and died, we watch documentaries about the age when reptiles ruled the land, and by the time we reach adulthood most of us like to think we have a pretty good handle on what things were like millions and millions of years ago. A new study focusing on the frequency of fresh dinosaur discoveries suggests we might have it all wrong, and that our understanding of the hundreds of millions of years that preceded humanity’s takeover of the planet could change dramatically over the next decade or two.

All we know about the history of the dinosaurs is what we’re able to piece together from the remains they left behind. We have bones and tracks and that’s about it. Working with that sparse evidence has always been a challenge for paleontologists, but the frequency with which new dinosaurs are being discovered has spiked dramatically in just the past twenty years or so. Those new discoveries are constantly changing what we thought we knew about prehistoric life, and it won’t be long before we look back on previous assumptions and find how misguided those guesses were.

“It’s a nice little paper that shows that in the last 20 years, the number of dinosaur genera named, as well as the number of specimens of those genera, has increased greatly,” Jonathan P. Tennant, co-author of the work, explains. “This has profound impacts on our understanding of dinosaur diversity, especially as these discoveries are unevenly spread over time and space. There are still huge gaps in our knowledge of the fossil record, and areas in space and geological time where the rapid pace of discovery is changing much of what we thought we knew about dinosaurs.”

You don’t have to look far to find examples of how an increase in dinosaur discoveries has shifted our knowledge. A few decades ago, the idea that some land-dwelling dinosaur species were covered in feathers was laughable at best. Crafty hunters like the velociraptors in Jurassic Park are depicted as leathery beasts, but we now know that the creatures were largely covered in plumage. Likewise, the mighty Tyrannosaurus rex was long thought to be the ultimate predator, but more recent discoveries have suggested it may have also been a scavenger, feasting on already-dead carcasses rather than hunting for a fresh feast when it was hungry.

There’s no telling what discoveries lie under the next rock, but scientists are painting a prehistoric picture faster and with more detail than ever before, and it’s quite exciting.