What did dinosaurs look like?
If you hear the word “Stegosaurus”, what picture immediately comes to mind? What about “Tyrannosaurus”? “Brontosaurus”? You’ve probably seen illustrations or models of many different dinosaurs: gigantic creatures with long necks and tails, stocky creatures with hard heads and horns or fierce teeth, and even swimming dinosaur-like creatures! But have you ever wondered what scientists really know about an extinct species? What they looked like? What they ate? How do scientists find out that sort of information?
Complete dinosaur skeletons are rare; usually a paleontologist has to piece together a fragmented skeleton and use the available parts to try to determine the way the full skeleton would look. Sometimes, fossilized skeletons get put together wrong–the case of the Brontosaurus is an example of this. The Brontosaurus, perhaps the most famous dinosaur after the T. rex, is really an Apatosaurus, with the head of a Camarasaurus. However, the name Brontosaurus is still the most popular.
Dinosaurs are a tricky thing to study, since the evidence about them is limited. It’s easy to confuse where science ends and assumption begins–forming theories is part of a paleontologist’s job, but theories should not be accepted as fact when based on insufficient evidence. Good science is careful to go no further than the evidence, clearly distinguishing between theory and facts. The pictures we see of dinosaurs are models based on the best idea scientists have of them.
Scientists base their assumptions about dinosaurs on fossilized bones, claws, teeth, bony plates, eggs, dung, and footprints. They also consider characteristics of similar animals, such as living reptiles. Even this evidence can be tricky to decipher, though: for instance, giant pandas and some other mammals have sharp teeth, yet are herbivores, so sharp teeth on a dinosaur does not necessarily preclude the possibility of it eating primarily plants.
You can demonstrate to your kids how easy it is to make wrong guesses about what an animal looks like based on its bones. Using this picture of a skeleton, have your children draw what they think the bones would look like assembled. Then draw what they think the live animal looks like. Count the vertebrae, toes, etc.; can they tell how many of each body part the animal has? What do they know for sure about the animal?
Don’t tell them until after they’re done that the skeleton actually belongs to a mouse. How close were their guesses to the truth? In the same way, good scientists do their best to imagine accurately from the evidence, but cannot always be certain they are headed in the right direction.
In the case of things which cannot be experienced again or seen firsthand (e.g., the Flood), science is limited in what it can prove. Thus, both a creationist viewpoint and an evolutionist viewpoint are more dogmatic than scientific.