A field guide to fake dinosaurs

“Rhedosaurus” from the 1953 film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.

Note: This essay was written in early 2015, before the release of Jurassic World.

So, Indominus rex.

As you probably know by now, that is the name of the new dinosaur in Jurassic World.  The animal never existed in nature. It is instead the Frankenstein creation of the park’s scientists, who spliced it together from snippets of DNA from other dinosaurs. From the description on the movie website:

At first glance, Indominus Rex most closely resembles a T. Rex. But its distinctive head ornamentation and ultra-bony osteoderms can be traced from Theropods known as Abelisaurs. Indominus’ horns have been placed above the eye orbit through genetic material hybridized from Carnotaurus, Majungasaurus, Rugops and Giganotosaurus. Fearsome indeed.

The movie’s producers have tried to keep the dinosaur’s appearance a secret, but if you’re curious, photos of I. rex have leaked online. Many dinosaur fans are not impressed. My favorite reaction so far has been the #buildabetterfaketheropod thread on Twitter, where people have posted drawings of their attempts to build the most ridiculous dinosaur possible.

Still, Jurassic World isn’t the first work of fiction to invent its own dinosaurs. There actually is quite a long history of make-believe dinosaurs in cinema and literature. Dinosaurs are cool. Dinosaurs were big. But for some people they were never quite cool or big enough.

Below are all the examples of fake dinosaurs I can recall encountering in film and fiction. I don’t include inaccurate depictions of real dinosaurs, like the oversized Velociraptors in the original Jurassic Park. I’m also leaving out the many examples of fictional dinosaurs that have evolved human-like intelligence – that is a topic for a future post. That said, if it was big, scaly or feathered, and never existed, then it made the list.

Rhedosaurus – The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is a very loose adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Fog Horn.” It is notable in that it established the career of stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen. The “Rhedosaurus” created for the film stands 65 feet tall, walks on four legs, and is aquatic. The problem is all carnivorous dinosaurs walked on two legs and lived on land – well, at least we thought, until new fossils of Spinosaurus were recently discovered.

Godzilla – 30 films and counting

Godzilla (or Gojira) undoubtedly is the most famous fake dinosaur of all time. Well, maybe. His origin story has changed over the years. In his original appearance, he was a dinosaur mutated by radioactive fallout. We even got to see what Godzilla looked like pre-nuking in the 1991 film Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah. The Godzilla series is filled with many fake prehistoric monsters, from the pterodactyl-like Rodan to Anguirus, who is basically a spiky Ankylosaurus. And, of course, Godzilla led to the British rip-off Gorgo.

Gorosaurus – King Kong Escapes and Destroy All Monsters

”Who?” you ask. Gorosaurus is a minor monster in the Godzilla pantheon, making its debut in Japan’s attempt at a King Kong movie: King Kong Escapes. But I think Gorosaurus is notable for the fact it is a pretty traditional dinosaur. The creature is basically an oversized Allosaurus with no superpowers, which is unusual for Japan’s giant monsters. Even King Kong, a monster that originally didn’t have any powers, was given the ability to harness lightning when he was recruited to fight Godzilla.

Tyrannosaurus trionyches – “A Gun for Dinosaur”

The incomplete fossil record has given writers the opportunity to fill in the gaps with dinosaurs they believe could have existed. In L. Sprague de Camp’s short story “A Gun for Dinosaur,” the main characters accidentally awaken a species of tyrannosaur even bigger than T. rex.

Whatever this is – “Hunters in the Forest”

The main character in Robert Silverberg’s short story “Hunters in the Forest” encounters a strange-looking and unnamed theropod in the Late Cretaceous:

It is a towering bipedal creature with powerful thighs and small dangling forearms of the familiar Tyrannosaurus, but this one has an enormous bony crest like a warrior’s helmet rising from its skull, with five diabolical horns radiating outward behind it and two horrendous incisors as long as tusks jutting from its cavernous mouth, and its huge lashing tail is equipped with a set of great spikes at the tip.

All the monsters from At the Earth’s Core

The novel At the Earth’s Core had a pretty standard set of dinosaurs populating its prehistoric world. But the monster makers of the 1976 movie adaptation either never saw any dinosaur illustrations or were high on drugs when they designed the trippy creatures of this film. We get a Godzilla rip-off with a parrot’s beak, two bipedal warthogs, a fire-breathing toad monster, and other strange critters.

The New Dinosaurs

The New Dinosaurs is a coffee table book by paleontologist Dougal Dixon that explored an alternate history where dinosaurs never died out. Instead, the animals evolved to fill modern ecological niches, so there are saber-toothed theropods, giraffe-like pterosaurs, armadillo-like sauropods, and so on.

Stratoraptor velox – Dinosaur Summer

Stratoraptor is the feathered, T.rex-sized antagonist of Greg Bear’s Dinosaur Summer. The creature lives in the “lost world” originally invented by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In Bear’s story, Stratoraptor evolved from earlier dinosaurs like Archaeopteryx. It is not the only invented dinosaur in the novel, as the author also populates his lost world with allosaur descendents and a species of herbivore that lives in ant-like colonies.

Hide-a-saurus – Cavewoman

Comic book artist Budd Root invented many fictional dinosaurs to inhabit the Cretaceous world of Cavewoman. Most were carnivorous, but the one that always stuck out in my mind was a duckbill dinosaur the heroine dubbed “Hide-a-saurus.” It had evolved to camouflage itself in tall grass. The problem? Grass didn’t become a huge part of the landscape until well after the dinosaurs died out.

Post-impact Antarctic dinosaurs – Evolution

Evolution by Stephen Baxter mostly is the story of human evolution, but he takes a few detours along the way. In one chapter, Baxter speculates that dinosaurs isolated on Antarctica survived the great extinction that killed the rest of their kind 65 million years ago. Among the survivors are the descendants of Velociraptors and Muttaburrasaurs, which have evolved to live in the harsh climate. Unfortunately their adaptations are not enough to save them from the final great freezing of the continent roughly 10 million years ago.

Dinocroc – Dinocroc and Dinocroc vs. Supergator

Okay, I admit I’ve never seen either movie. Just never got around to it. What’s worrisome is the description reads eerily like the plot of Jurassic World, with its gene-spliced dinosaur. From Wikipedia:

A prehistoric dinosaur, known as the Suchomimus, is genetically engineered by the GERECO Corporation, headed by Paula Kennedy (Joanna Pacuła). After being spliced with a modern day crocodile, the creature escapes the lab and begins terrorizing the lake-side residents of a nearby town.

Baboon lizards – A Sound of Thunder

A Sound of Thunder is the deservedly forgotten 2005 film adaptation of the Ray Bradbury short story of the same name. In the movie, the characters accidentally change the prehistoric past, which results in “time ripples” that gradually replace future Chicago with a reality where the dinosaurs never died out. The film doesn’t do much with the premise: Really the only animals we see are some oversized bats, a large eel, and a pack of “baboon lizards” that are a cross between baboons and dinosaurs. The special effects are pretty awful, although not quite as terrible as Ben Kingsley’s hair in the movie.

Vastatosaurus rex – King Kong (2005)

V. rex is a T. rex descendant living in the forests of Skull Island in the 2005 King Kong remake. It has evolved to resemble something out of a Charles R. Knight painting, with three fingers instead of two and a much larger body size than its famous ancestor. V. rex isn’t alone: Pretty much all the dinosaurs living on Skull Island are fictional, having evolved from creatures we find in the fossil record. The movie tie-in The World of Kong: A Natural History of Skull Island provides a glimpse of the island’s strange ecosystem.

Tree creeper – Primeval

The British TV show Primeval introduced viewers to a large number of real and fictional animals. Many of the latter came from a far future where humans were extinct, but the show’s writers invented at least one species of fake dinosaur. “Tree creepers” were basically Jurassic Park’s raptors crossbred with monkeys. They lived in the Cretaceous and used prehensile tails for grabbing unsuspecting prey.

Acceraptor – Terra Nova

The short-lived TV series Terra Nova invented a handful of fake dinosaurs with the explanation being that since the fossil record is incomplete, there were probably species that we know nothing about. The most memorable were the Acceraptors, or “slashers,” which were like Velociraptors but had crests and whip tails with blades at the end. They were a scary creation, but not one compelling enough to save the series from cancellation.

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