You can buy a dinosaur model that is an accurate representation of the bones and muscles of the animal.  Paleontologists are able to carefully reconstruct muscles on bones because they know where the insertions and origins are on the surfaces of bones. The model depends on persistent structures of bone to describe the animal, but anything that was soft tissue has disappeared.

In this activity you can encourage student to think critically and creatively to add plausible adaptations to a dinosaur model. Based on what we know of fleshy adaptations in reptiles today, we can make some educated guesses!


A. Show students a variety of reptile adaptations that depend on fleshy adaptations. These do not persist when the animal dies and decomposes and only bones remain. Here is a partial compendium of adaptations in lizards where some may apply to certain dinosaurs:

  1. Under throat waddles or pouches. These can have at least a couple of purposes. They can serve to warn other predators to stay away by flashing a larger looking head or a color that is alarming. It can serve to attract the opposite sex in a mating ritual. Or, it can have a function to cool the animal when the temperature is elevated. Since reptiles do not sweat, cooling is an issue when the sun is hot!

2. Frilled Neck. This adaptation is pretty self-apparent based on the photo. The soft tissue around the neck is inflated and flared when a predator is near. It makes the lizard look much larger and more fierce than what it really is!

3. Bloating. The chuckwalla lizard protects itself from larger predators by sitting n a narrow place between rocks or in a hole and then puffing its body so it can’t be pulled out. 

4. Camouflage. The horned toad lizard below can change its coloration to match the environment. 

5. Toxic Bite. The Komodo dragon has a toxic bite. It harbors bacteria that can infect a wound and cause death. Unlike fangs that would persist in the fossil record, a toxic bite might be something a dinosaur could have had!

6. Tail Re-growth. If a predator gets hold of this lizard’s tail, it will sever and leave the tail wiggling as a sacrifice to save its body. Over time, the lizard regrows its tail.

7. Frills. Many lizards have added frills on the head, tail, and back. These, like the under throat waddle in #1 above, can help the animal stay cool in a warm environment by pumping blood into the fin. When it is hot, the lizard flares the fin and dissipates the heat. When cool, it folds the fins to preserve heat.

8. Flying/Gliding. The flying lizard has frill adaptations that allow it to glide from tree to tree.

9. Warning coloration. Bright patterns can warn off predators, attract a mate, or keep other competitors away!

You can do more research on the adaptations of other lizards and reptiles to find behaviors and physiological features that dinosaurs may also have been able to have.

B. Evaluate the Dinosaur Model

Examine the dinosaur model and learn all you can about what paleontologists say about the creature based on the skeleton and teeth of the animal. Is it a herbivore, omnivore, carnivore? Is it a massive, slow creature, or a light fast one? Is there evidence that it was a runner or a slow walker? 

Consider what kind of adaptation could have assisted this dinosaur to find food, defend itself, find a mate, stay cool or warm, or just stay out of trouble!

C. Add an adaptation and defend you choice. 

When you have a good idea what you want to add to your dinosaur model, use clay to enhance your plastic model. Colored clay can be used to “recolor” a model or add fleshy structures. 

The key feature is to defend your decision about what adaptation was chosen and why it would be plausible.  Here is an example. An under throat pouch to attract a mate and warning spots to keep other males away. This is a slow moving dinosaur that eats plants so needs some protection against large predators.

You can do better than this!

D. Assessment

A simple “yes/no” rubric can be the basis for assessment:

Yes No.  Was the adaptation selected based on a living example found in reptiles?

Yes No.  Was the adaptation selected that would not have been found in the fossil record (not a boney plate or spine).

Yes No.  Was the adaptation selected explained in terms of how it could help the dinosaur find food, defend itself, find a mate, or stay cool or warm.

Yes No.  Was the defense of the adaptation possible? (For example, if you add wings to a Tyrannosaur, would it really be able to glide from tree to tree? Was it really able to climb a tree in the first place?)

Teachers:  Need some dinosaur models to do this activity? GO-STEM has them!  Let Stefanie Holloway know at