Are Dinosaurs Lizards? (2022 Update)

  • 4 min read
  • Dinosaurs
Are Dinosaurs Lizards

Dinosaurs have fascinated both children and adults since scientific research about them began seriously around the 19th century. It is hard to imagine that this impressive group of creatures used to be spread all across the globe and left us with nothing more than a few bones or rare skeletons to be admired in museums. A lot of people are tempted to look at the animals we have today and search for similarities to the dinosaurs of old. 

When you look at pictures of any kinds of lizards, small ones like chamaeleons, or geckos, and especially big ones like the Komodo dragon, you might have noticed a resemblance to the dinosaurs you know from books, movies, and natural history museums. This recognition often leads to the question:  

Are dinosaurs lizards? No. Surprisingly, dinosaurs were no lizards! They do have a lot in common with lizards, though. Both lizards and dinosaurs belong to the class of reptiles. While dinosaurs and lizards are both subcategories of reptiles and have both existed since prehistoric times, they have followed their own separate paths of development. Also, while dinosaurs are extinct, lizards are still going strong. 

The paleontologist Sir Richard Owen who coined the term dinosaurs in 1841 combined the Ancient Greek words deinos (terrible) and sauros (lizard or reptile) which is often translated as “terrible lizard,” but “terrible reptile” is more accurate in this case.

How Are Lizards Different From Dinosaurs? 

The difference is mainly in the position of the legs. Reptiles have an upright stance. This means that they stand with their legs positioned almost directly under their bodies. Lizards, on the other hand, have a sprawling stance. Their legs stick out to their sides and their thigh-bones are sometimes almost parallel to the ground, which leads to the crawling sort of movement that distinguishes them from most other animals that walk on four limbs.  

A reason for this difference in the way their skeletons are built is that dinosaurs, like for example the gigantic brachiosaurus, which could weigh anything between 20 and almost 35 metric tons, tended to weigh a lot more than even the biggest crocodile or Komodo dragon of today, and legs that are positioned directly under the body are much better at carrying a lot of weight efficiently. 

Another difference between lizards and dinosaurs is that lizards are covered in scales, whereas modern science has concluded that a lot of dinosaurs were actually covered in feathers. When it comes to the depiction of dinosaurs, this view is still slightly unpopular, though – maybe because a tyrannosaurus rex covered in green or brown shimmering scales looks far more intimidating than a creature resembling a gigantic fluffy chicken!

Even pop culture is starting to more and more, accept feathered dinosaurs, though, as can be seen for example in the recent Jurassic Park movies. For children getting to know dinosaurs just now in media and museums, feathered dinosaurs might become as natural as dinosaurs with scales used to be. 

Why Do Dinosaurs Look Like Lizards? 

Both dinosaurs and lizards are reptiles, which means that they have four limbs – or, like snakes, are descended from animals with four limbs – lay eggs, and live on land, so they do have a lot in common when it comes to life and reproduction.

Additionally, especially older depictions of dinosaurs showed them covered in scales, just like lizards. Also, lizards have existed for even longer than dinosaurs have, so it is no wonder that they sometimes get mistaken for those impressive giants with which they shared the planet for a while. 

Which Contemporary Animals Are Related to Dinosaurs? 

Even though they look like tiny dinosaurs, lizards like geckos and iguanas are not actually the dinosaurs’ closest living relatives. When looking for an animal that is covered in feathers and has the typical upright stance, birds will very quickly come to mind!

Indeed, birds whether harmless ones like chicken and cockatoos, or birds of prey like eagles and hawks, have developed directly from certain fast, light, and mostly carnivorous dinosaurs. Over the centuries, these animals developed wings that were strong enough to carry their whole body weight and their jumps slowly evolved into glides. This was a long process of evolution which resulted in their ability to fly and the birds we know now. 

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Adrian Volenik

I've lived around animals my whole life and I hold a Diploma in Animal Physiology. When I'm not reading or writing about wild animals, health and fitness, and technology, you can find me playing with my son and two cats. My pastimes include running, playing video games, and solving the NY Times crossword.