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What Makes a Dinosaur a Dinosaur? The question may sound like a “duh,” but it gets to the heart of how we categorize and define nature.

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Ask any 8-year-old what a dinosaur is, and she’ll eagerly rattle off her favorite of the prehistoric celebrities. And by the time we’re adults, dinosaurs feel utterly familiar; they’re the rockstars of prehistory, more famous and enduring then any Hollywood A-lister. They loom large in our imagination as big, toothy, and, above all, bizarre animals that have been carving out a life for themselves on Earth for the past 235 million years. But what is a dinosaur, really?

To answer that, we need to go back in time (no, not that far). Long before scientists were called scientists, people all over the world had been wondering who left all those ancient bones and footprints. At Flag Point in southern Utah, for example, Native Americans chiseled pictographs of three-toed footprints, inspired by dinosaur tracks in the surrounding Jurassic rock. And even by the time the naturalist William Buckland christened Megalosaurus, the first dinosaur to be named, in 1824, early geologists were in the dark as to what these animals were like. Megalosaurus and other early finds like Iguanodon were envisioned as basically crocodiles and iguanas longer than a city bus.

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