Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Ali. Ali Wonders, “How do we know what is the color of dinosaur skins?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Ali!

Movies like Jurassic World invite people to imagine a world where dinosaurs still roam the Earth. What if scientists did create dinosaurs from ancient DNA? Would they look like they do in movies? Would they be covered in scales? Would they have spikes along their backs? How do people know what dinosaurs looked like, anyway?

Paleoart is art about prehistoric life. The genre has been around since the 19th Century. Paleoartists show people what the world was like before humans. They paint scenes that include giant ferns and erupting volcanoes. They even sculpt saber-tooth tigers and wooly mammoths. Much of their work includes dinosaurs!

Paleoartists use knowledge from experts to make realistic art. They start with bones found by paleontologists. Full dinosaur skeletons are rare finds. Instead, experts put the bones they find together as well as they can. These bones are how paleoartists understand the basic shape of each dinosaur. Does it have short arms? It could be a T-Rex. What about a long neck? That’s a Brachiosaurus!

Bones can’t tell paleoartists everything they need to know! There are still many questions to answer. Did the dinosaur walk on two legs or four? How quickly could it run? What were its claws like? Paleoartists learn about the dinosaur’s diet to find answers. A dinosaur’s teeth tell us whether it ate plants, meat, or both. If the dinosaur ate plants, it likely walked on four legs and had horns or spikes. If it ate meat, it probably ran on two legs and had sharp claws.

What about the dinosaurs’ skin? How do we know whether dinosaurs had scales or feathers? Paleoartists use fossil evidence to learn what dinosaur skin looked like. Some well-preserved fossils give more evidence than others. For instance, the fossil of another ancient reptile called an ichthyosaur was found in 2018 and still had skin that had kept its color! That’s how we know it had dark skin and blubber, just like modern orcas. Most fossils we find of dinosaurs don't have as much for experts to go off of. Instead, they examine the impressions the creatures made on rock to decide what their skin looked like.

Have you ever been told you look like another member of your family? So did dinosaurs! Scientists have discovered over 700 species of dinosaurs, and many of them were related to each other. Knowing which dinosaurs were related helps paleoartists decide what the creatures in their art should look like. They know that theropods like the T-Rex traveled on two feet and that sauropods had long necks. That information helps paleoartists quite a bit!

Still WONDERing what dinosaurs looked like? Just look to the sky! Most experts today believe that dinosaurs are the ancestors of modern birds. Could other animals have evolved from the dinosaurs? We’re discovering new fossils every day. Who knows what connections we could find next?

Do you have a favorite dinosaur? Have you ever drawn or painted it? What kind of evidence did you use to find out what it looked like? You could be a paleoartist yourself!

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