The 10 Most Important Dinosaurs of North America

Triceratops and volcanic landscape
MARK GARLICK / Getty Images

Although it can't claim to be the birthplace of modern paleontology — that honor belongs to Europe — North America has yielded more iconic dinosaur fossils than any other continent on earth. Here, you'll learn about the 10 most famous and influential North American dinosaurs, ranging from Allosaurus to Tyrannosaurus Rex.

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Wikimedia Commons

The most famous carnivorous dinosaur that wasn't T. Rex, Allosaurus was the apex predator of late Jurassic North America, as well as a major instigator of the 19th-century "Bone Wars," the lifelong feud between the famous paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel C. Marsh. Like a crocodile, this fierce carnivore constantly grew, shed and replaced its teeth — fossilized specimens of which you can still buy on the open market.

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Wikimedia Commons

As is the case with many of the North American dinosaurs on this list, Ankylosaurus has lent its name to an entire family — the ankylosaurs, which were characterized by their tough armor, clubbed tails, low-slung bodies and unusually small brains. As important as it is from a historical perspective, though, Ankylosaurus isn't nearly as well understood as another armored dinosaur of North America, Euoplocephalus.

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Wikimedia Commons

Although Coelophysis (see-low-FIE-sis) was far from the first theropod dinosaur — that honor belonged to South American genera like Eoraptor and Herrerasaurus that preceded it by 20 million years — this tiny meat-eater of the early Jurassic period has had a disproportionate impact on paleontology, ever since thousands of Coelophysis specimens (of various growth stages) were unearthed in New Mexico's Ghost Ranch quarry.

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Emily Willoughby

Until the central Asian Velociraptor stole the spotlight (thanks to "Jurassic Park" and its sequels), Deinonychus was the world's most famous raptor, a lithe, vicious, relentless carnivore that probably hunted in packs to bring down larger prey. Significantly, the feathered Deinonychus was the genus that inspired the American paleontologist John H. Ostrom to speculate, in the mid-1970s, that modern birds evolved from dinosaurs.

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Diplodocus dinosaur, illustration


One of the first sauropods ever to be discovered, in Colorado's portion of the Morrison Formation, Diplodocus remains one of the best known — thanks to the fact that the American tycoon Andrew Carnegie donated copies of its reconstructed skeleton to natural history museums around the world. Diplodocus was, incidentally, very closely related to another famous North American dinosaur, Apatosaurus (formerly known as Brontosaurus).

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Wikimedia Commons

As you can guess from its name — Greek for "good mother lizard" — Maiasaura is famous for its child-rearing behavior, with the parents actively monitoring their kids for years after birth. Montana's "Egg Mountain" has yielded hundreds of skeletons of Maisaura babies, juveniles, adults of both sexes and, yes, unhatched eggs, an unprecedented cross-section of the family life of duck-billed dinosaurs during the late Cretaceous period.

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Ornithomimus dinosaur sculpture in Botanical Gardens, Zilker Park.

Getty Images/Lonely Planet/Richard Cummins

Yet another dinosaur that has lent its name to an entire family — the ornithomimids, or "bird mimics" — Ornithomimus was a large, ostrich-like, probably omnivorous theropod that galloped across the North American plains in sizable herds. This long-legged dinosaur may have been capable of hitting top speeds in excess of 30 miles per hour, especially when it was being pursued by the hungry raptors of its North American ecosystem.

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Wikimedia Commons

By far the most famous of the stegosaurs — the family of spiked, plated, slow-witted dinosaurs of the late Jurassic period — Stegosaurus had much in common with the equally influential Ankylosaurus, especially as regards its unusually small brain and nearly impenetrable body armor. So dimwitted was Stegosaurus that paleontologists once speculated that it harbored a second brain in its butt, one of the field's more spectacular blunders.

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Wikimedia Commons

Just how all-American is Triceratops? Well, this most well-known of all ceratopsians — the horned, frilled dinosaurs — is a major draw on the international auction market, where complete skeletons sell for millions of dollars. As to why Triceratops possessed such imposing horns, not to mention such an enormous frill, these were probably sexually selected characteristics — that is, better-equipped males had more success hooking up with females.

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Tyrannosaurus Rex

Tyrannosaurus Rex
Getty Images

Tyrannosaurus Rex isn't only the most famous dinosaur of North America; it's the most famous dinosaur in the entire world, thanks to its frequent (and often unrealistic) appearances in movies, TV shows, books, and video games. Amazingly, T. Rex has maintained its popularity with the public even after the discovery of bigger, scarier theropods like the African Spinosaurus and the South American Giganotosaurus.

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Strauss, Bob. "The 10 Most Important Dinosaurs of North America." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Strauss, Bob. (2023, April 5). The 10 Most Important Dinosaurs of North America. Retrieved from Strauss, Bob. "The 10 Most Important Dinosaurs of North America." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).