Reptiles aplenty, but definitely not Jurassic Park.

Please don't confuse this green iguana with Iguanodon.
Please don’t confuse this green iguana with Iguanodon.

In my visit to La Selva, I’ve probably seen more wild reptiles than I’ve ever seen before (9 crocodiles, 2 iguanas, and too many geckos to count), which made me think I should make some sort of witty comment about this region of Costa Rica coming straight out of a scene from Jurassic Park. Of course, the fictional “Isla Nublar” (where most of the story takes place) is supposed to be in Costa Rica, but on second thought, I decided against equating lizards with dinosaurs. The problem is that too many people have made that parallel already, polluting the concept of dinosaurs in our minds.

Yes, it is true that the word dinosaur means “terrible lizard,” and many species (such as Tyrannosaurus rex) have the work saurus, or lizard, in their name. This was all due to an initial confusion on how to classify these extinct creatures in the 1800s, since most of the earliest dinosaur fossils discovered were teeth that bore a slight resemblance to reptiles such as the Komodo dragon and the iguana (both lizards), although another one of the first fossils was considered to be from a human giant!

Unfortunately, even some people who are very well educated make the mistake of equating dinosaurs with lizards, which the following organization does:

Image credit:
Image credit:

The iguana is definitely NOT a “modern-day descendant of the dinosaur.” While crocodiles may be considered dinosaur cousins, lizards and snakes (and tuataras) are very far removed from dinosaurs on the reptile family tree.

Lizards and snakes are only a tiny bit closer to dinosaurs than mammals! Image source: The Chicken or the Egg
Lizards and snakes are only a tiny bit closer to dinosaurs than mammals! Image source: The Chicken or the Egg
In case you’re wondering what the tuatara looks like, which lives only in New Zealand. Image credit: Samsara

Check the family tree up above again and you’ll see the dinosaurs that are still alive today–birds. If I were to really discuss a modern-day Jurassic Park, it would have to be with birds as the focus. Instead of scaly reptiles with vertical slits for pupils, they would be feathered, and colorful, and be able to see objects when they weren’t moving around.

Jurassic Park might have gotten the warm-bloodedness part correct, but the rest is really wrong (even though this is a classic scene).

The Tyrannosaurus rex was way off, too–it had excellent eyesight and might’ve had feathers.

Still looks pretty scary to me! Image credit: nebzial
Still looks pretty scary to me! Image credit: nebzial

So really, dinosaurs were a lot more like this:

And so the closest thing to a dinosaur that I’ve seen yet were the rheas at the El Valle Zoon in Panama, plus the chickens I’ve seen just about everywhere.

Can you spot the three dinosaurs in this picture?
Can you spot the three dinosaurs in this picture?
Those feet match T. rex almost perfectly!

With all of that said, I still think lizards and snakes are pretty darn cool, particularly because certain species (iguanas, especially) can be used to support conservation. The Iguana Park above, even though they are wrong about lizards being dinosaurs, are also right about a lot of things. Iguanas are often hunted in Central America for meat (which actually does taste a lot like chicken) but they do best in a tropical forest. This has led some people to plant more trees and protect the forest so that the iguanas will thrive, and give everyone a new source of food. I tried something similar during my service in the Peace Corps 14 years ago, and I will try to follow up with that project when I go back to Panama. But in the meantime, here are some scenes from working iguana farms in Costa Rica and Honduras:

Maybe I’ll be able to post a video of iguanas in Panama sometime soon!


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