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'Most accurate' depiction of a dinosaur yet looks like a Muppet with face horns

A fossil from China helps scientists reconstruct Psittacosaurus, but the new look is a step down for the dino.

Gael Cooper
CNET editor Gael Fashingbauer Cooper, a journalist and pop-culture junkie, is co-author of "Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops? The Lost Toys, Tastes and Trends of the '70s and '80s," as well as "The Totally Sweet '90s." She's been a journalist since 1989, working at Mpls.St.Paul Magazine, Twin Cities Sidewalk, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and NBC News Digital. She's Gen X in birthdate, word and deed. If Marathon candy bars ever come back, she'll be first in line.
Expertise Breaking news, entertainment, lifestyle, travel, food, shopping and deals, product reviews, money and finance, video games, pets, history, books, technology history, and generational studies Credentials
  • Co-author of two Gen X pop-culture encyclopedia for Penguin Books. Won "Headline Writer of the Year"​ award for 2017, 2014 and 2013 from the American Copy Editors Society. Won first place in headline writing from the 2013 Society for Features Journalism.
Gael Cooper
2 min read

Oh, dinosaurs. You're losing your fearsome, terrifying reputation.

Generations grew up thinking of you as nightmarish giants who could make people shudder simply by stomping your foot and making a cup of water shake. And now you're Muppets with face horns. Fraggles with googly eyes. You look more like Jar-Jar Binks than the terrors that roamed "Jurassic Park."

Look, the scientists who used a fossil from China to assemble a life-size 3D model that's been called "the most accurate dinosaur reconstruction ever" are probably right on. But seriously, is this the face you want your kid to see when flipping through her My First Dinosaurs book? It's got two big rosebush thorns sticking out of its face, a beaky thing that wouldn't be out of place on Foghorn Leghorn and eyes that look like my cat's after someone accidentally trods on her tail.

The Psittacosaurus fossil from the early Cretaceous period 120 million years ago was studied by Jakob Vinther, a lecturer at the UK's University of Bristol, and colleagues. They worked from a complete skeleton that retained fossilized soft tissues, a rare find after so many years. Even skin pigments and the creature's cloaca (the opening for reproduction, urination and excretion) remained intact.

But because the fossil had been crushed, the researchers had to carefully measure the bones and study preserved scales and muscle structure before creating the model, the university noted in a statement. The scientists were able to deduce that the dinosaur probably lived in a forest by comparing the shadow cast by the model with pigment patterns preserved in the fossil.

Impressive science, but if this is how dinosaurs really looked, no wonder they went extinct. When it comes to any more renovated ideas of dino appearances, how about we just take the blue pill and stay in The Matrix?

"When the anatomy surprises me -- it confirms that I've followed the fossil evidence rather than any preconceived ideas of my own," Vinther told the Guardian. His team's research appears Thursday in the journal Current Biology.

Can we go back to those preconceived ideas?

These far-out animals fascinate and amuse scientists

See all photos

First published September 15, 2:48 p.m. PT.
Update, 3:34 p.m.: Adds more detail on the dinosaur fossil.