Even though my primary fascination with the past has always been through archaeology, the science of paleontology has also provided a wonderful source of inspiration about the amazing world we live in. Officially unveiled today, the latest LEGO Ideas set is 21320 Dinosaur Fossils, so I was especially excited to get building with an early copy of the set that LEGO sent The Brothers Brick. The new set includes 910 pieces with two minifigures and will go on sale November 1st (US $59.99 | CAN $79.99 | UK £54.99).
Editor’s note: This LEGO Ideas set identifies and labels the individual species of each extinct creature included in the set, so you’ll find that we refer to them using binomial nomenclature, with scientific names in italics and abbreviations like T. rex for Tyrannosaurus rex rather than “T-Rex”. If you think Andrew gets pedantic about Star Wars lore, just wait until he digs into a scientifically inspired LEGO set like this!
The box & packaging
The set comes in a durable box you can store your bones in, with the skeletons shown in a natural history museum setting on the front of the box.
The back of the box shows the skeletons from other angles, highlighting some of their posability. The skeletons also appear on the wall in framed profile views.
The three models in the set have separate instruction booklets rather than a single larger booklet. This approach makes each individual booklet feel much less substantial, detracting from the “premium” feel of many other LEGO Ideas sets in their sturdy packaging with thick booklets.
The second booklet for the Triceratops includes the usual details, introducing the three species of extinct creature recreated in brick, as well as interviews with both the in-house LEGO Designer and the fan designer (French LEGO fan Jonathan Brunn) whose successful LEGO Ideas project inspired the official set. Unlike most LEGO Ideas and even UCS LEGO Star Wars sets, the information in the booklet takes the form of journal-like first-person accounts rather than the usual Q&A interview format.
More LEGO Ideas sets have begun using stickers rather than printed pieces, and this latest set follows the sticker route. Fortunately, the stickers are simply applied to common 1×2 and 2×4 tiles, so you’re not losing the use of rare pieces by applying these unique stickers.
It’s rare that we skip a description of the build for a LEGO set that’s nearly one thousand pieces, though we often do for reviews of smaller sets. But what makes this LEGO Ideas set interesting is, for better and for worse, not the build process — most of the connections are with some combination of clips and bars, Technic pins, and click hinges. We’ll cover the build very briefly, and then focus on the finished models.
- Book 1 (Pteranodon longiceps): One bag, including the the paleontologist and crate.
- Book 2 (Triceratops horridus): Bags 2 and 3, with the minifig skeleton. Bag 2 includes the pieces for the Triceratops’ body, while bag 3 includes the parts for the skull and tail.
- Book 3 (Tyrannosaurus rex): Bags 4-6. The fourth bag just provides the parts for the T. rex‘s legs, with the fifth bag building the torso. The sixth and final bag includes the parts for the skull and tail.
The finished models & minifigs
I’m relieved that the first model is the Pteranodon, so that I can clear the air (pun intended) regarding the pterosaurs’ evolutionary relationship with dinosaurs. Pterosaurs certainly do have much in common with dinosaurs — they share a common reptilian ancestor, they lived during broadly the same time (from about 228 million years ago for pterosaurs and 243 million years ago for dinosaurs), and died out at the same time most dinosaurs went extinct 66 million years ago. But even though modern birds are surviving dinosaurs, fully extinct pterosaurs are not dinosaurs. This means that the name of the LEGO set (“Dinosaur Fossils”) is technically correct but rather misleading, as only two of the three main fossils are true dinosaurs. This is important because there are many misconceptions about both pterosaurs, which are often called “flying dinosaurs,” and about feathered avian dinosaurs (birds), and this LEGO set’s name perpetuates that common misunderstanding.
The label for this LEGO pterosaur identifies it as Pteranodon longiceps, which only lived for about 1.5 million years during the late Cretaceous period, between about 86 and 84.5 million years ago. Despite this very limited timespan, P. longiceps has the long beak and tall head crest that have become associated with the iconic look of pterosaurs more broadly.
The wing bones are angled well, and includes a 1×1 clip tile as the creature’s tiny claws.
Even though the head looks enormous, P. longiceps did indeed have a massive head, with shorter wings compared to some of its sleeker pterosaur relatives.
The Pteranodon is held aloft with a Technic axle attached to a well-balanced base via a click hinge. The label appears on the base.
Of course, LEGO has produced several previous pterosaurs, including the colorful ones in current Jurassic World sets. It’s quite fun to put the two LEGO pterosaurs next to each other.
The Pteranodon is somewhat posable, with legs, tail, and wings that you can position in several different ways. This angle also shows the rib cage, which I’m not nearly as convinced by with only four ribs.
Triceratops horridus appeared about 68 million years ago, an evolutionary wink before a giant space rock fell out of the sky, landed on Mexico, and murdered all the dinosaurs (except birds — a point that I will continue to belabor). The LEGO Triceratops has two large horns above its eyes and a smaller horn made from a 1×2 cheese slope on its nose. Although all of the skeletons are to the same scale, the larger size of the Triceratops affords more opportunity to provide realistic details like a proper rib cage.
I think the Triceratops has the best “face” among the brick-built skulls, with a great lower jaw, nostrils, and eyes. The three-toed feet also work wonderfully, even though they’re actually attached only to the base and not to the legs.
The tail includes great details as well, with spinous processes extending up from the vertebrae.
My biggest complaint about the T. horridus skeleton is that the frill has a fringe of spines. Some ceratopsid dinosaurs did have spines on their frills, such as those in the genus Styracosaurus. But most surviving Triceratops skulls do not, in fact, have spines on their frills. Triceratops generally had more rounded frills, without spines, as you can see in this photo I took of the Triceratops at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
Styracosaurus certainly has a more interesting skull, both as a display model and to build in LEGO, but calling a Styracosaurus a Triceratops is like calling a dromedary camel a llama — not the same thing.
Complaints about naming aside, the “Triceratops” (Styracosaurus) skeleton is gorgeous and wonderfully detailed. The hip bones arch around the leg bones using vehicle mudguard pieces, and the rib cage nestles behind the chunky legs.
One of my favorite, fantastically accurate details is the collar bone, hanging underneath the skull from the shoulder bones.
Finally, the iconic “King of the Tyrant Lizards” Tyrannosaurus rex. Like the Triceratops, T. rex lived in the final 2 million years of the Cretaceous, making them contemporaries. Tyrannosaurs are theropod dinosaurs, from which modern birds evolved during the mid-Jurassic (about 170 million years ago). That’s right — the two most archetypal dinosaurs in Jurassic Park were actually from the Cretaceous. The T. rex skeleton towers over the minifig paleontologist.
The larger size allows even greater posability — the head and tiny arms all have full range of motion thanks to ball joints, while the tail can be posed with click hinges.
The T. rex skeleton is larger than its non-skeleton counterpart, though the family resemblance is obvious and displaying them together is something I’m sure many builders will choose to do.
The T. rex has a smaller skull than Triceratops, with openings like the antorbital fenestrae (“window behind the eyes”) carefully recreated in LEGO.
This past weekend, I attended the grand opening of the new Burke Museum here in Seattle. I was shocked to learn that the best-preserved T. rex skull in the world was excavated in the summer of 2016 on a Burke Museum and University of Washington expedition to Montana. The “Tufts-Love” T. rex shows how accurate the LEGO version is, from nostrils to fenestrae. However, these photos of actual dinosaur fossils illustrate the contrast between the bone-white LEGO version and the generally darker color of most fossils. LEGO Ideas sets notoriously don’t include new molds, and usually avoid elements in new colors in order to keep costs low. This choice means that Jonathan Brunn’s tan skeletons rendered digitally have been transformed into bright, shiny white. As understandable as the design choice by LEGO was, it’s still disappointing.
The T. rex shares several design elements with the LEGO Triceratops, including the way the ribs attach to a tan horse harness and the vehicle mudguards for hip bones.
A clear 2×2 brick ensures that the ribs stay in place.
The long tail (or caudal vertebrae) features both spinous processes sticking up and chevrons hanging down.
The legs are mostly built from Technic liftarms, ensuring the large skeleton has a sure foothold attached to the stand.
The two minifigs included with the set are a paleontologist carrying a bone and magnifying glass, accompanied by a minifig skeleton labeled “LEGO Sapiens”. The paleontologist wears a jacket that looks ready for the field, with overmolded legs representing tall brown boots.
“LEGO Sapiens” is funny and clever, but I’m obligated to point out that something like Homo legoensis (“LEGO man” rather than “Thinking LEGO”) would have been taxonomically more correct, despite the likelihood of raising both ignorant ire and the tittering of twelve-year-olds.
The paleontologist has a fun box of gear and fossils to play with, including an egg first released in the Angry Birds sets (because birds are — everyone together now! — living dinosaurs). That said, a LEGO set likely to be used in STEM education really should have included both a male and female scientist. The good news is that if you want to add a woman paleontologist alongside this set for the budding bone-hound in your family, you can still pick up the Series 13 Collectible Minifigure paleontologist (complete with ammonite!) for less than three bucks.
He also has a sketchbook and pen or pencil (an all-black tube of lipstick) for documenting his discoveries.
It’s great to see more and more LEGO minifigs sporting overmolded legs, which make the designs on the legs look much more integrated from every angle.
Conclusions & recommendation
Readers of this review will certainly have sensed that I have many issues with this set, not least of which is the accuracy of naming for both the set itself (pterosaurs are not dinosaurs) and most obviously the Styrachosaurus labeled as a Triceratops, as well as the shining white color of the skeletons. At the same time, the fun of the build is in assembling anatomically accurate skeletons of extinct creatures, not in innovative building techniques with new parts. In reality, perhaps my annoyance with these inaccuracies is because I really love this set. There’s obviously deep care that both the fan designer and in-house LEGO design team have taken to ensure LEGO builders have an opportunity to recreate and display fantastic LEGO dinosaurs and a pterosaur.
At $60, it’s also a fairly substantial set, though the part count is largely due to the small detail pieces, which will likely give you plenty of opportunity to build alternate models of other extinct creatures. And even though a set like this doesn’t feel like it needs minifigs, the paleontologist is especially nice with his tall brown boots and dapper mustache.
So, despite the bones I’ve had to pick with this set, I highly recommend 21320 Dinosaur Fossils to anybody interested in building their own LEGO versions of Cretaceous creatures.
The LEGO Group sent The Brothers Brick an early copy of this set for review. Providing TBB with products for review guarantees neither coverage nor positive reviews.