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Dinosaurs as kangaroos and T-rex the Pop Icon

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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In 1841, during a lecture in which he coined the term “dinosaurs“, the English palaeontologist Richard Owen (1804-1892) described some new species of this particular group of vertebrates, including the Iguanodon. He imagined the Iguanodon like a chimera: in part crocodile, in part elephant, with elements of a hippopotamus or rhinoceros and with a sort of horn at the end of the snout (which later will be identified as part of the modified thumb).
In 1854 the sculptor and artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (1807-1889) was delegated to create some models of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals – under the supervision of Owen – for a permanent exhibition in the gardens of the Crystal Palace in south London.

Fig.1. Lithograph by artist George Baxter of the Crystal Palace dinosaurs (two Iguanodon and Hylacosaurus/Hylaeosaurus) as restored by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins in accordance with ideas derived from Richard Owen (image in public domain).

Owen and also Hawkins were followers of the theory of “types“, developed by the French naturalist Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) – Cuvier asserted that in anatomy there were four (or at least a limited number) basic types of “animal forms or archetypes“. It was therefore possible that in apparent different groups of animals, like reptiles and mammals, there exist similar types and body structures. The Victorian dinosaurs were the reptilian equivalent of carnivore and herbivore mammals and Hawkins reconstructed the dinosaurs as large mammals with only the scaly surface identifying them as reptiles.
Owens’s dinosaurs had also two other advantages: 1) The, compared to modern reptiles, superior prehistoric reptiles confuted the proposed “scala naturae” (the ladder of progress in geological time) of the emerging “evolutionists” movement and 2) the super-reptiles of course were once inhabitants of the Great Britain – nature itself provided evidence that this place was a higher developed nation already in the geological past.

The exhibition in London was a great success and in 1868 Hawkins was invited by the American Museum of Natural History in New York to organize a similar spectacle in Central Park. Unfortunately after some political intrigues the initiated work and models were destroyed or lost.

Fig.2. The laboratory of Hawkins in New York. It’s interesting to note that in front of the dinosaur is collocated a (presumably giant) deer in a very similar pose (image in public domain).

To celebrate the centenary of the declaration of independence from 1876 to 1878 Hawkins began to work again on a model of a dinosaur, this time a Hadrosaurus, a species described in 1856 by the American palaeontologist Joseph Leidy (1823-1891). Observing the disproportion in size of the limbs Leidy had in 1858 proposed a bipedal posture for this animal. The upright standing model of Hadrosaurus displayed at Princeton is today considered the first dinosaur to be reconstructed in a (more) correct manner.

Then in 1877 in a coal mine near the Belgian town of Bernissart 31 perfectly preserved skeletons of Iguanodon were discovered.
The outstanding preservation allowed palaeontologist Louis Dollo (1857-1931) to describe in detail the anatomy and biology of this species. Dollo confirmed the reconstruction of Leidy, the forelimbs seemed too fragile to support the body, and refuted the model of Owens rhinoceros.
But doing so a problem emerged: to which modern animals should now artists refer for the reconstruction of body and especially posture of the dinosaurs? Initially Dollo used as reference frogs, then ostriches and other large birds, to shift finally to the kangaroo in a resting pose and using it as a model. This famous bipedal reconstruction of Dollo’s Iguanodon will influence entire generations of palaeoartists.

Fig.3. Figure showing a phase in the reconstruction of a skeletons of Iguanodon from Bernissart, note in the background a skeleton of a kangaroo, animal used by Dollo as a reference model for the posture of the dinosaur (Institut Royal des Sciences Naturelles de Belgique, Brussels).

Charles R. Knight (1874-1953) was an American artist specializing in animal models and drawings. In 1896/97 he produces in collaboration with palaeontologist Edward Drinker Cope (1840-1897) an oil painting depicting a group of dinosaur of the genus Laelaps during the act of fighting, doing even (at least it seems so) a somersault!
In an early article published in “The American Naturalist” (1868), Cope himself evokes the figure of a kangaroo:

…joined with the massive tail points to a semi erect position like that of the Kangaroos while the lightness and strength of the great femur and tibia are altogether appropriate to great powers of leaping.

The image of the reconstruction by Knight, but influenced by Cope, is first exposed in public and then published in the “Century” magazine, from where it will soon be copied by other newspapers and enter the collective mind and popular culture.

Fig.4. C. Charles R. Knight’s (1896) “Laelaps” (image in public domain).

Not only the image of dinosaurs resembling, even acting, like kangaroos so for decades will spread in form of depictions, it is even immortalized in various (pulp-)stories and in modern classic novels.

In a story of 1891 in “Hardwicke’s Science-Gossip“, a short-lived 19th century pop-sci magazine, we read:

The Laelaps was forty feet long, stood twenty-five feet high on its hindlegs, and was built like a kangaroo. It was the most astonishing jumper that ever existed, with teeth for cutting and sharp claws on the front feet, evidently designed for tearing out its adversary’s eyes.

Sir John William Dawson, geologist, depicts Laelaps in his 1873 pop-sci book “The Story of Earth and Man” as follows:

Had we seen the eagle clawed Laelaps rushing on his prey; throwing his huge bulk perhaps thirty feet through the air, and crushing to the earth under his gigantic talons some feebler Hadrosaur, we should have shudderingly preferred the companionship of modern wolves and tigers to that of those savage and gigantic monsters of the Mesozoic.

The writer Arthur Conan Doyle – known for his Sherlock Holmes stories – in 1912 publishes “The Lost World“. The sudden appearance in the novel of a dinosaur he describes as follows:

I said deliberately” jumping”, because the monster moved like a kangaroo, and jumped straight on its powerful hind legs – the forelegs were folded in front of the chest. It seemed much bigger then an erected elephant. But despite it’s huge size, it’s movements were very swift.

A large biped dinosaur will finally decree the end of the era of mammalian dinosaurs.

October 5, 1905 in a paper published by the American palaeontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn (1857-1935) one of the most famous dinosaurs was introduced to the public:

I propose to make this animal the type of the new genus Tyrannosaurus, in reference to its size, which greatly exceeds that of any carnivorous land animal hitherto described.

Fig.5. The T-rex as Pop Icon, from OSBORN 1905.

Based on fragmentary material collected in 1902 Osborn reconstructed an animal standing upright on his hind legs, seen in profile to display its length and especially height (accentuated by the chosen posture), reaching more than 5m, dwarfing every predator of the past and the present. Even man, compared in the publication to the reconstructed skeleton, is banished as small skeleton in the right lower corner of the figure. Osborn also chose carefully the species-name of this new predator, to emphasize the importance of this discovery “The king of Tyrant lizards“.

The figure will soon become part of geology and palaeontology books of the epoch and so influence profoundly the collective image of dinosaurs.
This cliché of T-rex as the most terrible predator makes him a perfect antagonist in many adventures novels and later movies – however in part by the proposed reconstructions (especially the long tail scouring on the ground) and the limitations of the film technology at these times (making dynamic, jumping dinosaurs hard to realize) the image seen in the movies differs from the images in the books – the movie introduces the public to dinosaurs as large, heavy animals, with dull movements -strong, but not the fastest in movements and thoughts.

References:

DWORSKY, A. : Die sich wandelnde Idee des Dinosauriers. Exposé zur Dissertation
GAYRARD-VALY, Y. (1987): Les fossiles – empreinte des mondes disparus. Editions Gallimard, Paris: 208
OSBORN, H.F. (1905): Tyrannosaurus and other Cretaceous carnivorous dinosaurs. Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, 21: 259–265

Online Resources:

ORR, D. (03.08.2010): Leaping Laelaps, Indeed. Accessed 04.08.2010

David Bressan About the Author: Freelance geologist dealing with quaternary outcrops interested in the history and the development of geological concepts through time. Follow on Twitter @David_Bressan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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