Where Dinosaurs Lived

Interior of a rainforest, Malaysia.
Travelpix Ltd / Getty Images

Dinosaurs lived over 180 million-year span that ranged from the Triassic Period when all continents were joined as a single landmass known as Pangea beginning 250 million years ago through the Cretaceous Period ending 66 million years ago.

The Earth looked a lot different during the Mesozoic Era, from 250 million to 65 million years ago. Although the layout of the oceans and continents may be unfamiliar to modern eyes, not so the habitats in which dinosaurs and other animals lived. Here's a list of the 10 most common ecosystems inhabited by dinosaurs, ranging from dry, dusty deserts to lush, green equatorial jungles.

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Meadow grass field under blue sky aso milk road, japan
Photo by Supoj Buranaprapapong / Getty Images

The vast, windswept plains of the Cretaceous period were very similar to those of today, with one major exception: 100 million years ago, grass had yet to evolve, so these ecosystems were instead covered with ferns and other prehistoric plants. These flatlands were traversed by herds of plant-eating dinosaurs (including ceratopsians, hadrosaurs, and ornithopods), interspersed with a healthy assortment of hungry raptors and tyrannosaurs that kept these dimwitted herbivores on their toes.

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Bald Cypresses in Swamp.
Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

Wetlands are soggy, low-lying plains that have been flooded with sediments from nearby hills and mountains. Paleontologically speaking, the most important wetlands were the ones that covered much of modern Europe during the early Cretaceous period, yielding numerous specimens of Iguanodon, Polacanthus and the tiny Hypsilophodon. These dinosaurs fed not on grass (which had yet to evolve) but more primitive plants known as horsetails.  

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Riparian Forests

Wharariki Stream behind Wharariki Beach, Puponga, New Zealand.
Steve Waters / Getty Images

A riparian forest consists of lush trees and vegetation growing alongside a river or marsh; this habitat provides ample food for its denizens but is also prone to periodic flooding. The most famous riparian forest of the Mesozoic Era was in the Morrison Formation of late Jurassic North America—a rich fossil bed that has yielded numerous specimens of sauropods, ornithopods, and theropods, including the giant Diplodocus and the fierce Allosaurus.

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Swamp Forests

Cypress Grove swamp.
Brian W. Downs / Getty Images

Swamp forests are very similar to riparian forests, with one important exception: The swamp forests of the late Cretaceous period were matted with flowers and other late-evolving plants, providing an important source of nutrition for huge herds of duck-billed dinosaurs. In turn, these "cows of the Cretaceous" were preyed on by smarter, more agile theropods, ranging from Troodon to Tyrannosaurus Rex.

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Sunset over Sentinel Mesa, Monument Valley, Arizona.
janetteasche / Getty Images

Deserts present a harsh ecological challenge to all forms of life, and dinosaurs were no exception. The most famous desert of the Mesozoic Era, the Gobi of central Asia, was inhabited by three very familiar dinosaurs—Protoceratops, Oviraptor, ​and Velociraptor. In fact, the entwined fossils of a Protoceratops locked in combat with a Velociraptor were preserved by a sudden, violent sandstorm one unlucky day during the late Cretaceous period. The world's largest desert—the Sahara—was a lush jungle during the age of the dinosaurs.

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Sunset over Padar Island, Indonesia
Abdul Azis / Getty Images

Lagoons—large bodies of calm, tepid water trapped behind reefs—weren't necessarily more common in the Mesozoic Era than they are today, but they tend to be overrepresented in the fossil record (because dead organisms that sink to the bottom of lagoons are easily preserved in silt.) The most famous prehistoric lagoons were located in Europe. For example, Solnhofen in Germany has yielded numerous specimens of Archaeopteryx, Compsognathus, and assorted pterosaurs.

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Polar Regions

Iceberg detail, Antarctic Peninsula.
Andrew Peacock / Getty Images

During the Mesozoic Era, the North and South Poles weren't nearly as cold as they are today—but they were still plunged in darkness for a significant portion of the year. That explains the discovery of Australian dinosaurs like the tiny, big-eyed Leaellynasaura, as well as the unusually small-brained Minmi, a presumably cold-blooded ankylosaur that couldn't fuel its metabolism with the same abundance of sunlight as its relatives in more temperate regions. 

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Rivers and Lakes

Turquoise alpine lake with mountain.
Martin Steinthaler / Getty Images

Although most dinosaurs didn't actually live in rivers and lakes—that was the prerogative of marine reptiles—they did prowl around the edges of these bodies, sometimes with startling results, evolutionwise. For example, some of the biggest theropod dinosaurs of South America and Eurasia—including Baryonyx and Suchomimus—fed primarily on fish, to judge by their long, crocodile-like snouts. And we now have compelling evidence that Spinosaurus was, in fact, a semiaquatic or even fully aquatic dinosaur.

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Maldives island, half water.
by JBfotoblog / Getty Images

The world's continents may have been arranged differently 100 million years ago than they are today, but their lakes and shorelines were still studded with tiny islands. The most famous example is Hatzeg Island (located in present-day Romania), which has yielded the remains of the dwarf titanosaur Magyarosaurus, the primitive ornithopod Telmatosaurus, and the giant pterosaur Hatzegopteryx. Clearly, millions of years of confinement on island habitats have a pronounced effect on reptile body plans.

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California Coastal road near Redwood National Park.
Peter Unger / Getty Images

Like modern humans, dinosaurs enjoyed spending time by the shore—but the shorelines of the Mesozoic Era were located in some very odd places. For example, preserved footprints hint at the existence of a vast, north-south dinosaur migration route along the western edge of the Western Interior Sea, which ran through Colorado and New Mexico (rather than California) during the Cretaceous period. Carnivores and herbivores alike traversed this well-worn path, doubtless in pursuit of scarce food.

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Strauss, Bob. "Where Dinosaurs Lived." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/where-did-dinosaurs-live-1091965. Strauss, Bob. (2021, February 16). Where Dinosaurs Lived. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/where-did-dinosaurs-live-1091965 Strauss, Bob. "Where Dinosaurs Lived." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/where-did-dinosaurs-live-1091965 (accessed June 8, 2023).