Ah, the dinosauroid. At once loved and hated, the idea of troodontids evolving into sapient, even humanoid beings has probably piqued many of our interests at some point. Paleontologist Dale Russell’s “lizard man” dinosauroid is the most infamous and well-known expression of the concept, but there are many other instances of the idea being explored, either playing along with it or criticizing it. I’m gonna muse about the history of the concept here.
I should note when I use the term “dinosauroid”, I’m combining both dinosaurs that didn’t go extinct in the K-Pg extinction evolving sapience, and dinosaurs evolving sapience in the Mesozoic. While the former is more often done “for fun”, the latter has commonly been used to make commentary (as we shall discuss). I admit I’m using a very broad definition of what a dinosauroid is, but two things are required: they have to have explicitly evolved from non-sapient dinosaurs, and there must be significant and obvious physical difference from those ancestors (beyond garden-variety anthropomorphism).
The roots of the idea well predate Russell’s work. Two publications in 1977 discuss the possibility of sapient dinosaurs. Carl Sagan, in The Dragons of Eden, brought up the idea of sapient descendants of Saurornithoides, suggesting that they may have used a base-8 number system instead of the base-10 system many human cultures use (Sagan, 1977). At the same time, Aritsune Toyota produced several works suggesting sapient dinosaurs could have evolved from dromaeosaurs (e.g. Toyota, 1979). A year later, Harry Jerison presented a talk at a meeting of the American Psychological Association, suggesting Dromiceiomimus could have evolved sapience (Jerison, 1978). I don’t think any more information than that is known (if you were there, please contact me, I want details).
Enter Dale Russell. In 1982, he mused on about the possibilities of Stenonychosaurus evolving into an intelligent, humanoid being. He went into its anatomy, intelligence, physiology, and behavior (Russel and Séguin, 1982). He commissioned artist Ron Séguin to build a model of both Stenonychosaurus and the dinosauroid, which I’m sure you’ve already seen. I don’t really have much more to say about this that hasn’t already been said, so I suggest you read TetZoo’s articles about it.
But the concept did not stay confined to 43 pages in a relatively obscure Canadian journal. The model had a big press release. Some of the attention was positive, and some wasn’t. Many, many children’s dinosaur books brought it up at least in passing (including some I grew up with). It earned a part in a traveling exhibition. Wayne Barlowe did a take on it. Authors John McLoughlin and Mike Magee also wrote about their own takes on the dinosauroid – both of them musing that these sapient dinosaurs, through the actions that a sapient species without forethought usually does, led to the end-Cretaceous extinction (Naish, 2008). The doomer dinosauroid also somehow ended up in Colin Caket’s craft book Model a Monster, as the basis of its horrifying ending. It was perhaps inevitable that the dinosauroid would eventually be used as a metaphor for what humanity could do to itself (it didn’t take long for Dougal Dixon, founder of the modern speculative evolution movement, to explore these themes), but it particularly makes sense considering these were written during the Cold War. This was before the Chicxulub crater confirmed an extraterrestrial impact as the biggest cause of the extinction (Hildebrand et al., 1991), and it having been caused by nuclear war was not off the table entirely.
What’s surprising (or perhaps not, given the splash the dinosauroid made) is the amount of fictional media from the 90’s and 2000’s that featured sapient dinosaurs. This trend began before the Jurassic Park dinomedia wave and seems to have largely died off since. The 1993 movie Super Mario Bros. involves an alternate universe where people evolved from dinosaurs instead of mammals. I’ve written about it before. The 2000 novel Anonymous Rex (which was later made into a bad Syfy original movie) takes place in a world where non-avian dinosaurs survived the K-Pg extinction, evolved sapience, and live disguised alongside humans. This idea is also discussed in the 2007 BBC Horizons episode My Pet Dinosaur, which ruminates on what would happen if humans and non-avian dinosaurs coexisted from a slightly more serious standpoint. Dinosauroids started popping up in anime and manga, such as Dinosaur Planet (恐竜惑星) from 1993, which features two different high-tech dinosauroid species (one descended from Troodon and one from Leaellynasaura). Star Trek: Voyager got in on it with the Voth, a spacefaring species descended from Parasaurolophus, for a change. Dinosauroids even show up in an episode of Ultraman Tiga, of all places!
Sapient, anthropomorphic dinosaurs also show up in Theodore Rex, which may be irrelevant because they didn’t naturally evolve (genetic engineering), but I’m bringing it up anyways because it’s a horrible movie.
But none of these were so revolved around the dinosauroid as the 2007 TV series Dinosapien. The central character of the series is Eno, a descendant of Dromaeosaurus. He is six feet tall, intelligent, has feathers on the top of his head and tail (but is otherwise scaly), is capable of vocal mimicry, has an opposable thumb, and is just humanoid enough to fall into the uncanny valley for me. It aired for 15 episodes on CBBC and Discovery Kids before being forgotten by everyone except former weird kids. It’s honestly not particularly good, but I think it should be recognized more often when discussing speculative evolution in media.
I’m gonna highlight two of my favorite takes on the idea of the dinosauroid. The 2003 book Evolution by Stephen Baxter, which is effectively an anthology of stitched-together short stories, has one with sapient Ornitholestes that cause a minor extinction event at the end of the Jurassic. This is one of the few times (the only one? please prove me wrong) where the “dinosauroid” evolves before the Maastrichtian. And the 1991 A&E documentary Dinosaur!, hosted by Walter Cronkite, has an out-of-nowhere scene at the end where a dinosauroid news anchor – the dinosauroid Walter Cronkite – explains their evolution. According to Dinosaur!, the dinosauroids are yet to appear – millions of years after humanity goes extinct due to global warming and nuclear war, they will evolve from birds that secondarily lost flight and feathers!
On a side note, since the classical dinosauroid is hinged upon troodontids being the smartest dinosaurs, the “genius Troodon” trope also persisted in the popular consciousness. It even bleeds through in shows like Dinosaur Train, where the Troodon (including Mr. Conductor) are the only dinosaurs in the show to ever wear clothing. Of course troodontids probably weren’t as intelligent as modern brainy birds like corvids and parrots, and we have no way of knowing if they were even the smartest dinosaurs of the Cretaceous (I wonder how ornithurans would compare), but I don’t think the day has come where the trope is entirely dead and buried. It is on its way out for another reason, however…
Why did the dinosauroid take off to the extent that it did? Some (like McLoughlin and Magee) saw it as a means to make meaningful commentary on society. Some (like Dale Russell himself) seem to have been drawn to the idea that the human form is an evolutionary inevitability of sapient animals (which is a very flawed idea, but that’s out of the scope of this post). Some (like me) just think speculative evolution is cool. Or maybe the early 80’s were just a prime time for speculative evolution to take off for whatever reason – After Man was published the year earlier, and look how much of an impact it had. As for the amount of “dinosauroids” in fiction, we don’t know how many post-1982 sapient dinosaurs were directly inspired by Russell’s dinosauroid. Ultraman Tiga might have the strongest case for that. Heck, the oldest appearance of “humanoid sapient dinosaurs that survived the extinction” in fiction that I know of is the 1974 manga and anime Getter Robo – so the trope arguably predates Russell’s dinosauroid by at least eight years, albeit not taken seriously until Sagan and Toyota came along. But the dinosauroid’s cultural effect cannot be entirely ignored, I would say. I’ll observe more clearly dinosauroid-inspired media seems to be more common in Japan (a similar trend to After Man‘s popularity there).
Why isn’t the dinosauroid as popular anymore? I can think of three potential reasons. First, Jurassic Park seems to have fronted a new wave of dinosaur media. This new wave was faster, louder, more awesomebro. The dinosauroid was part of the 80’s paleontology that was on its way out. And thus the JP raptor dethroned Troodon descendants as the genius dinosaurs in pop consciousness (which the Jurassic World movies are only reinforcing). Second, to quote Q-Tip out of context, “don’t you know that things go in cycles?” As proposed by Darren Naish (2018), speculative evolution’s media popularity seems to wax and wane over a constant background interest. This probably also applies to the dinosauroid – it had its time in the limelight, and even though there’s still a constant vague interest in sapient dinosaurs, people lost interest as the novelty wore off. There aren’t many appearances past the 90’s.
Thirdly and perhaps most crucially, there has been quite a bit of backlash against Russell’s original dinosauroid. It didn’t even make it out of the 80’s without getting roasted for how humanoid it was (e.g. Paul, 1988). Even Russell himself seems to have burned out of it eventually. There have been many recent attempts at redesigns, such as C.M. Kosemen’s Avisapiens saurotheos and Mette Aumala’s Paranthropoharpax naishi. I’ll admit to having played with the idea myself in the past. Again, there’s not much to say about why the classical dinosauroid doesn’t work that hasn’t already been said, so I guess that’s where this post ends. I wonder where the dinosauroid’s next major multimedia appearance will be. It’s been a pretty silent front outside the TetZoo sphere for several years. Perhaps the time nears for new blood to be pumped into the sapient dinosaur concept.
Hildebrand, A.R.; Penfield, G.T.; Kring, D.A.; Pilkington, M.; Camargo Z., A.; Jacobsen, S.B.; Boynton, W.V. (1991). “Chicxulub Crater: A possible Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary impact crater on the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico”. Geology 19(9): 867-71.
Jerison, H. J. (1978). “Smart dinosaurs and comparative psychology”. Meeting of the American Psychological Association, Toronto.
Naish, D. (2008). “How intelligent dinosaurs conquered the world“. Tetrapod Zoology, ScienceBlogs (via Internet Archive).
Naish, D. (2018). “Speculative Zoology, a Discussion“. Tetrapod Zoology, Scientific American (via Internet Archive).
Paul, G.S. (1988). Predatory Dinosaurs of the World. Simon & Schuster.
Russell, D.A.; Séguin, R. (1982). “Reconstruction of the small Cretaceous theropod Stenonychosaurus inequalis and a hypothetical dinosauroid”. Syllogeus 37: 1-43.
Sagan, C. (1977). The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence. Random House.
Toyota, A. (1979). ダイノサウルス作戦. Kadokawa Haruki.