Dinosaurs; the first finds

A summary of early dinosaur discoveries, selected for you by a professional geologist. With links to sites on other fossil groups, evolution and stratigraphy.

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The first finds


So great is the modern interest is there in the often gigantic size of the dinosaurs and to their often bizarre appearance, their discovery and recognition must rate as one of historical importance. This occurred in the 19th century, first in England and then in Europe and North America

Dinosaurs (or the bones of dinosaurs) have been present on this earth for more than 200 million years, but no one had ever heard of them until 1841 simply because there was no name or definition of them as a group of fossils. This was 165 years after the first published illustration of a dinosaur bone and seventeen years after the first dinosaur was named and described, before a name was invented for them, Dinosauria, based on deinos, the Greek for terrible and sauros, Greek for lizard.

Dinosaurs have undoubtedly been unearthed by humans over the centuries but they were not recognised for what they were. It is almost certain that the Chinese found dinosaur remains over 3000 years ago, judged by reports of 'dragon's teeth' which were collected for medicinal reasons in parts of China now known to be quite rich in dinosaur bones. There is also perhaps some basis for thinking that bones belonging to dinosaurs were the basis of the Griffin, of Greek Mythology. Central Asia was one of the important sources of gold for the Greeks and Romans. Remains of the lion-size beaked dinosaurs, Protoceratops, from fabulous dinosaur fossil deposits of Mongolia near the ancient gold fields of Central Asia, may have been the source of the legendary griffins.

However there were various barriers that had to be overcome before fossils, and especially dinosaurs could be recognised. One of the biggest barriers was religious teaching, and it was not until scientists began to challenge religious teaching about the history of the Earth that this could be over come. Also until certain skills such as comparative anatomy had developed, and scientists had become sufficiently familiar with the range of animals living today, it was impossible to appreciate the meaning of fossils. Once fossils began to be recognised as the remains of once living creatures at the beginning of the 19th century (less than 200 years ago), then the recognition of special sorts of fossils such as dinosaurs became a possibility.

Getting close

In England before 1824 people had been finding strange-looking bones of enormous size buried in the ground, but nobody really knew what they were. It was thought by some that they were the bones of giant men! The earliest book to mention such a bone was published by the Reverend Robert Plot of Oxford in 1676. Robert Plot published a figure of the end of large limb bone which is believed to be the first published remains of a dinosaur. However, Plot had no idea of the identity of the animal that produced such a large bone.

Large fossil bones were being found in mainland Europe and in 1770, quarry workers discovered a large skull of a Mosasaurus near the town Maastrich, Holland. George Cuvier, the French anatomist, recognized that the skull came from a giant marine lizard.

Dinosaur finds continued and the first dinosaur fossil found in the USA was a thigh bone found by Dr. Caspar Wistar, in Gloucester County, New Jersey, in 1787 (it had since been lost, but more fossils were later found in the area). In 1800 in Connecticut, Pliny Moody found 31 cm long fossilized footprints at his farm that were thought by Harvard and Yale scholars to be from "Noah's Raven" (note the influence of religion). Many other dinosaur footprints were found in New England stone quarries in the early 1800's, but they were thought to be unimportant and were blown up in the quarrying process. Other fragmentary dinosaur bones and tracks were unearthed at this time in Connecticut and Massachusetts.

The collections of the Natural History Museum in London contain an Iguanodon bone which was collected at Cuckfield in 1809, by William Smith, 'Father of English Geology', who did not recognise the significance of what it was that he had acquired.

Soon after in 1811, Mary Anning at the age of 12 found remains of what were initially thought to be a crocodile, but which turned out to be the first remains of the marine reptile, ichthyosaur.

Several bones of an enormous reptile, with teeth suitable for eating meat, had been dug up at Stonesfield in Oxfordshire, as Cuvier saw it in Oxford as early as 1818. The animal was named Megalosaurus ('big lizard') and a description of it was published by Buckland in 1824. This was the first description of a dinosaur. Megalosaurus, rather than Iguanodon, was actually the first dinosaur, for its skeleton was not only the first to be found but also the first to be properly named. Unfortunately Buckland, although a professional geologist, did not recognize its importance.

The recognition of the significance of the bones

The story of dinosaurs really began in 1822, the year when the first teeth of Iguanodon were discovered. Those same teeth are still to be seen in London, in the palaeontological collections of the British Natural History Museum.

Thus, the main character in our story is Gideon Mantell (1790-1852), a young country doctor who lived and worked in the little Sussex town of Lewes, England. It so happened that he was also a very keen collector of fossils, mostly from the South Downs, and wrote books and articles on the subject. One sunny spring day in 1822 he had driven into the surrounding countryside to visit a patient, and, because the day was so beautiful, his wife Mary Ann had decided to accompany him. While Dr Mantell was indoors with his patient, Mrs Mantell took a stroll along the lane and made a scientific discovery of the greatest importance. For there, in a pile of stones from the local quarry, soon to be used for repairs to the road surface, was something dark brown and shiny. Closer examination showed that one of the pieces of sandstone contained fossil teeth.

So the original Iguanodon teeth were actually found by Mrs Mantell in the 1820's during a time when women were not eligible to hold senior scientific positions within the establishment. She then showed these large fossil teeth quite unlike anything that Mrs Mantell and possibly anyone else had ever recognised as being of significance, to her husband. He was very excited by the find and during the following weeks managed to find out which quarry the teeth had come from, one near Cuckfield in Sussex. More teeth and large bones were found in the quarry and in others nearby. What really excited Mr. Mantell was that the teeth were suitable for slicing up vegetable matter. Mantell thought the animal to be a giant reptile, but this theory initially met with flat disbelief from the famous scientists of the time, among them the celebrated naturalist Georges Cuvier of Paris (1769-1832), generally regarded as the founder of the study of comparative anatomy, who regarded them as the remains of mammals.

However, Mantell was confident of his views and this confidence was confirmed for him by talking to a naturalist called Samuel Stutchbury, as his fossil teeth were like those of an Iguana lizard from Central America, and he decided to call the unknown animal from which they came Iguanodon-Iguana-tooth'.

He published a description of the teeth and bones of Iguanodon in 1825 as probably belonging to an unknown gigantic plant-eater of Cretaceous age, an age when large mammals were not recorded. He believed that they represented an entirely new group of animals, the existence of which had not even been suspected until then. They seemed to have been characterized by vast size and herbivorous habits, which so it was thought in those days were found together only in certain types of mammals; yet in all other respects Mantell's creatures appeared to have been perfectly good reptiles, and Mantell preferred to regard them as such.

However, Cuvier admitted that he had been wrong in his earlier refusal to accept the reptilian nature of Mantell's discoveries. Mantell's and Cuvier's concept of a group of enormous herbivorous reptiles (a group for which neither of them suggested a name) must obviously have excluded any gigantic fossil carnivores, of which a few were already known at that time.

In 1832 Mantell described another very different reptile skeleton from Sussex (Hylacosaurus), and in 1834 he obtained a whole mass of Iguanodon bones from a quarry in Maidstone, Kent

Throughout the 1830s more giant reptiles were discovered, abroad as well as in England, and by 1841 many different sorts were known. Then, in 1841, at a meeting in Plymouth of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Dr Richard Owen (1804-1892) who later became Professor Sir Richard Owen, first Director of the Natural History Museum in South Kensington) suggested that some of these should together be called the Dinosauria, the 'terrible lizards'. He defined its members by the characters of their skeletons, some characters resembling those of various other groups of reptiles, others altogether peculiar to the dinosaurians themselves; but he mentioned also their gigantic size, 'far surpassing', the largest of existing reptiles' and the important fact that they had lived on land. This definition therefore excluded finds of Mososaurs and Icthyosaurs.

Popularisation and further finds

Members of the general public soon came to hear of these newly discovered monsters of the prehistoric world. Indeed, their interest was deliberately fostered by the construction in South London, in the grounds of the Crystal Palace at Sydenham, of several life-sized restorations of extinct amphibians, reptiles (including all of Owen's dinosaurs) and mammals. They were built of cement, stone, bricks, tiles and iron by the sculptor Waterhouse Hawkins, working under Owen's direction, and they were completed in 1854. This may have been the first step in their popularization and in media interest.

The exhibit proved immensely popular and despite the burning down of the Crystal Palace in 1936, the concrete animals remain there to this day.

In the USA perhaps the first major dinosaur publication came in 1848 when Edward B. Hitchcock published his first book on the Connecticut Valley dinosaur tracks initially discovered by Pliny Moody.

The first nearly complete dinosaur skeleton was found by William Parker Foulke. Foulke had heard of a discovery made by workmen in a Cretaceous marl pit on the John E. Hopkins farm in Haddonfield, New Jersey, USA, beginning in 1838. Foulke heard of the discovery and recognized its importance in 1858 after the naming and popularisation of dinosaurs in England. Unfortunately, some of the bones had already been removed by workmen. The skull-less dinosaur was excavated and named by US anatomist Joseph Leidy who named it Hadrosaurus fouki. It was a duck-billed dinosaur. The "Haddonfield Hadrosaurus" is on display at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences.

In 1855, Ferndinand Vanderveer Hayden led a geological expedition to the Judith River region of Montana and discovered the first dinosaur teeth from the western part of the United States. Teeth collected by the Hayden Survey were also described by Joseph Leidy.

The great Dinosaur rush

In the decades of the 1870's and 1880's, particularly in the USA, there was a period of time when massive discoveries opened the doors to new fantastic worlds of dinosaurs. These decades not only changed our knowledge of the world, but how we view our place in the world. The discoveries in late 1870,s of the vast bone fields in the Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Utah and the fabulous Bernissart locality in Belgium was a special time in palaeontology and opened the door to the world of the dinosaurs.

The beginning of the Great Dinosaur Rush started in 1877 when in March, 1877, Arthur Lakes wrote to both Othniel Marsh (1831-1899) and Edward Cope (1840-1897) about the large bones at Morrison Colorado and in April, 1877, O.W. Lucas discovered dinosaur bones at Canyon City, Colorado for Cope. In Spring, 1877, the fabulous dinosaur locality at Como Bluffs was found by W.E. Carlin and W.H. Reed. The Como Bluffs Dinosaur Graveyard, located nine miles East of Medicine Bow, Wyoming, is one of the most renowned fossil beds ever discovered. Carlin and Reed were two employees of the U.P. Railroad. They found large fossil remains, and brought them to the attention of Professor Marsh of Yale College Museum.Collections for Marsh. In two years between 1877 and 1889, the first Diplodocus, Apatasaurus, Stegosaurus and a spectacular number of Jurassic mammals were found. Collections from this locality resulted in a total 26 new species of Dinosaur, many with complete or nearly complete skeletons, and 45 new species of Jurassic mammals.

However, perhaps the most remarkable of these early finds was made in a coal-mine in the Belgian town of Bernissart in 1877 and 1878. More than 300 metres below the surface the miners found themselves tunnelling through a mass of what turned out to be Iguanodon skeletons. It took three years to excavate them from the mine. In the Royal National Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels there are now thirty-one of these dinosaurs; eleven complete skeletons are properly mounted in a standing position, and twenty more, complete or incomplete, are exhibited lying down. It was these specimens which allowed more accurate reconstructions of Iguanodon to be made.

In the American West the discoveries were made mostly in the states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana and (later) New Mexico. This part of the world was still being opened up, and the collectors were often in danger of attack by Indians. The most famous area is around the little town of Medicine Bow in Wyoming. There, in direct contrast to the finds in Europe the ground was often littered for miles with the bones of gigantic dinosaurs, well preserved and easy to collect. Indeed, in one place there were so many bones that a shepherd had built himself a little cabin out of them. It was possible to collect nearly complete skeletons in enormous numbers, as is shown by the well-stocked Dinosaur Halls of so many major American museums. By the time the two rival professors, Edward. Cope and Othniel Marsh, who competed to collect and name more new dinosaurs than the other, the number of known dinosaurs in North America had increased from nine dinosaurs to over 140.


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