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The 19th Century discovery of dinosaurs

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


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The Great Dinosaur Discoveries, Darren Naish. This is the cover of the US, University of California Press edition.

Back in 2009 my book The Great Dinosaur Discoveries (Naish 2009; University of California Press in the US; A&C Black in the UK) was published. If you’re read the book and like it, please remember that you can help me out by posting reviews on amazon (go here for the amazon.co.uk version). The following section is an excerpt from one of the early parts of the book – the part that introduces the section on 19th Century discoveries. It might include some very familiar material (sorry about that) but, if you haven’t read the book already, here it is in what might be a novel sort of compilation.

In 1842, the trailblazing British scientist Richard Owen announced the discovery of the dinosaurs to great acclaim. He described them as immense animals with thick limb bones and strong, reinforced hips. They were the “most perfect modifications of the Reptilian type”, and “must have played the most conspicuous parts, in their respective characters as devourers of animals and feeders upon vegetables, that this world has ever witnessed in oviparous and cold-blooded creatures”.

Buckland's 1824 illustration of the original Megalosaurus lower jaw bone.

Two decades earlier, scientists already knew of the existence of gigantic sea reptiles in the distant past, but by the time of Owen’s publication, clues were emerging that equally impressive reptiles had lived on land as well. The first of these “dinosaurs-to-be” was a huge carnivore, discovered in an English rock known as the Stonesfield Slate, and published by William Buckland in 1824 under the name Megalosaurus. Buckland imagined it to be a fearsome predatory lizard with a total body length of 18–21 m (60–70 ft).

A second “dinosaur-to-be” was found by Gideon Mantell, a medical doctor and amateur fossil collector from the small market town of Lewes in East Sussex, in southern England. Mantell built up an impressive collection of fossils from his neighborhood over the years, first publishing on them in 1822. However, the fact that he lived outside the socio-political center of 19th-century England counted against him, despite his best efforts to make his way in London scientific circles. By the early 1820s, Mantell had obtained several unusual fossil teeth that came from the Tilgate Grit (now known to be Lower Cretaceous in age), and in 1825 he named Iguanodon for these remains. Since the teeth resembled those of iguanas, he regarded Iguanodon as lizard-like but enormous in size, its length perhaps exceeding 30 m (100 ft).

Gideon Mantell's lizard-like reconstruction of Iguanodon, probably never intended for publication. I've never understood what he was trying to do with the 'feet' - some people say he was trying to show the animal perched on a branch, others that we was drawing numerous articulated toe bones.

A third “dinosaur-to-be” was, like Iguanodon, also from the county of East Sussex. The specimen was uncovered by workmen and blasted into fragments that Mantell later managed to fit together, and in 1833 he named it Hylaeosaurus. It is a big armored reptile with large conical spines arranged on the neck and shoulders, and has remained poorly known. Certainly it has never become as familiar to the public as Megalosaurus or Iguanodon.

Owen’s Dinosauria

Megalosaurus, Iguanodon, and Hylaeosaurus were all remarkable discoveries, but these creatures were not regarded as close relatives until 1842, when Owen proposed that they be united in a new group, which he called the Dinosauria. He argued that dinosaurs—the name means “fearfully great lizards”—resembled large modern land mammals such as elephants and rhinos in their terrestrial habits, reinforced hip regions, and massive, elephantine limbs. However, it was simply a coincidence that the three species known at this point shared a special reinforced pelvic region*: more recent discoveries have shown that this feature is not a defining character of dinosaurs as once was thought. Interestingly, despite emphasizing their size, Owen also inadvertently “downsized” the dinosaurs. For example, he suggested that Megalosaurus and Iguanodon were both about 9 m (30 ft) long.

* This isn’t entirely accurate but results from an editorial compromise.

Crystal Palace Iguanodon, with Hylaeosaurus in the background - a view not seen all that often. Photo by Darren Naish.

Moreover, discoveries made during the 1860s showed that dinosaurs were not all elephantine monsters, but also included small species. The bird-like anatomy of the small dinosaurs Hypsilophodon (from England) and Compsognathus (from Germany) enabled Thomas Huxley—“Darwin’s bulldog”—to propose an affinity between dinosaurs and birds. Archaeopteryx, named from Germany in 1861, demonstrated that birds themselves lived alongside dinosaurs.

Owen’s views on dinosaurs became more familiar to the public than did those of his colleagues Buckland and Mantell because life-sized models of “Owenian dinosaurs” were created for a special exhibition of extinct animals—known as the Dinosaur Court—that opened in the grounds of the Crystal Palace, London, in 1854. The Crystal Palace Company had initially approached Mantell, but he had turned them down.

Global dimensions

Dinosaur fossil in North America were first reported during the 1850s. In 1855, geologist Ferdinand Vandiveer Hayden collected fossil teeth from the Cretaceous badlands of what is now Montana. On his return to Philadelphia in 1856 he passed them to palaeontologist Joseph Leidy. Although dinosaur tracks were discovered in the Connecticut Valley decades earlier, and described by the Reverend Edward Hitchcock in 1836, they were thought at the time to be bird tracks. The teeth collected by Hayden were therefore seen as the first North American dinosaur remains (see pp.32-33). They indicated that dinosaurs with similarities to Iguanodon and Megalosaurus awaited discovery on the continent. This was confirmed in 1858, when Hadrosaurus—the first duck-billed dinosaur to be found—was discovered in New Jersey. It was clearly related to Iguanodon, yet its bones suggested a kangaroo-like body. Iguanodon was itself to be re-imagined entirely, due to the discovery of several specimens at Bernissart in Belgium in 1878. Having studied the new skeletons, Belgian palaeontologist Louis Dollo showed that Iguanodon was shaped more like a giant kangaroo than the quadrupedal, lizard- or rhino-like animal originally pictured by Mantell and Owen.

The Great Dinosaur Discoveries (Naish 2009) spread on Hadrosaurus (pp. 32-33).

By the end of the century, dinosaurs had become reasonably well known as a fascinating and diverse group of animals. In North America, stegosaurs were discovered in the 1870s and the giant horned dinosaur Triceratops was named during the 1880s. Sauropods, which had first been discovered during the 1840s in England but had remained enigmatic and mysterious, now became better understood, thanks to the naming of Camarasaurus from Colorado, in 1877. This was followed soon after by many other Late Jurassic relatives. It was clear that a golden age of discovery had begun.

For previous Tet Zoo articles on The Great Dinosaur Discoveries, and on Iguanodon, Megalosaurus and other historical dinosaur discoveries, see…

Ref – -

Naish, D. 2009. The Great Dinosaur Discoveries. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Darren Naish About the Author: Darren Naish is a science writer, technical editor and palaeozoologist (affiliated with the University of Southampton, UK). He mostly works on Cretaceous dinosaurs and pterosaurs but has an avid interest in all things tetrapod. His publications can be downloaded at darrennaish.wordpress.com. He has been blogging at Tetrapod Zoology since 2006. Check out the Tet Zoo podcast at tetzoo.com! Follow on Twitter @TetZoo.

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





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  1. 1. doug 1 10:32 am 08/4/2012

    I love how the Crystal Palace iguanadons look so much like the giant lizard-like dinosaurs which were so intent on eating Naomi Watts on Skull Island from Peter Jackson’s “King Kong”. I think Naomi Watts would be a tasty dish myself. LOL.

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  2. 2. Heteromeles 1:01 pm 08/4/2012

    Actually, I was just thinking how often I’ve seen the Crystal Palace iguanodons in science fiction and fantasy. One could almost argue for destroying them, for the sake of replacing them with something rather more realistic. The irony here is that they’ve become stock dragon figures, and anyone doing a dragon in fantasy that has, I don’t know, feathers, is regarded as making a dinosaur instead.

    Darren, I’m starting to wonder how many examples there are of fairly early researchers being essentially right (as in the connections between birds and dinosaurs) and then the field languishing for decades while subsequent researchers make their careers out of trashing these initial insights. Or is that an over-simplified story?

    Certainly I know of some current examples in botany, where many of the species currently getting renamed in my neck of the woods are actually re-acquiring names that were given to them over a century ago, now that molecular research has confirmed that their first describers were more correct in their relationships than were subsequent researchers.

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  3. 3. David Marjanović 4:28 pm 08/4/2012

    Or is that an over-simplified story?

    Well, yes. Note, in the quotes given above, how much Owen emphasizes that dinosaurs “are reptiles”. That’s because he tried to argue against evolution* by (correctly) arguing against progress: “reptiles”, by definition “cold-blooded”**, that were as “advanced” as today’s mammals fit very well into his concept.

    * Darwin hadn’t published yet, but Lamarck had. Owen remained, technically, a creationist to his death.
    ** Owen had no other reason to think his dinosaurs were “cold-blooded”, yet he called them that in one of the quotes above.

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  4. 4. vdinets 9:00 pm 08/4/2012

    Isn’t it strange that the first dinosaur to be discovered was a large carnivore, even though large carnivores are supposed to be the rarest kind?

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  5. 5. Mark Robinson 12:09 am 08/5/2012

    “Isn’t it strange that the first dinosaur to be discovered was a large carnivore,…”
    I would say no to “large” and yes, possibly to “carnivore”. Preservation and collection biases would tend to work in favour of larger dinosaurs. Larger creatures are less likely to be washed out to sea or completely devoured, larger bones are more likely to survive the fossilisation process, and larger fossils are more likely to be noticed and thought worthy of recovering.

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  6. 6. naishd 6:52 am 08/5/2012

    What has to be remembered – and what is certainly not made clear in my text above – is that the first dinosaurs awarded names (and hence typically regarded as “the first dinosaurs”) were certainly not the first dinosaurs to be discovered. People had actually been discovering, and even documenting, dinosaur limb bones, vertebrae and other elements for hundreds of years prior to the 1824 naming of Megalosaurus. Some authors have provided rather precise identifications of those bones, suggesting that they can be identified as early discoveries of particular genera only officially named later on (Delair & Sarjeant 1975, 2002), but it is likely in most/all cases that they can only be identified to higher groups – that is, to Iguanodontia, Sauropoda, Theropoda etc.

    The Oxford Megalosaurus material had been found in the late 1700s and was long known as the ‘Stonesfield monitor’ prior to the 1824 naming. Buckland seemingly decided to formally publish it because he was familiar with Mantell’s plans to publish the description of his Iguanodon.

    Darren

    Refs – -

    Delair, J. B. & Sarjeant, W. A. S. 1975. The earliest discoveries of dinosaurs. Isis 66, 5-25.

    - . & Sarjeant, W. A. S. 2002. The earliest discoveries of dinosaurs: the records re-examined. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association 113, 185-197.

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  7. 7. naishd 7:22 am 08/5/2012

    With regard to comment 2 from Heteromeles (“I’m starting to wonder how many examples there are of fairly early researchers being essentially right (as in the connections between birds and dinosaurs) and then the field languishing for decades while subsequent researchers make their careers out of trashing these initial insights”)… well, history is complicated.

    We tend to get summarised accounts of 19th century views of evolutionary history, without it being fully appreciated exactly what those people really thought. Huxley famously compared various non-avialan dinosaurs to modern birds, and hence advocated a sort of evolutionary connection. But, like others of his day, his views on how lineages might emerge from amorphous ‘ancestral stocks’, on how convergence or parallelism could explain similarities seen between groups that had been separated for massive spans of time, and so on, are odd and absolutely archaic compared to what we think today. What I’m getting it is that, while 19th century workers were sometimes ‘about right’, the larger aspects of their approach could not be considered accurate. If I remember correctly, Huxley thought – for example – that vertebrate groups including mammals had originated in the Silurian.

    Modern phylogenetic studies are, in many cases, causing people to revisit taxonomic proposals made decades ago. In this sense, it sometimes seems that early researchers were right on the money. But just as many taxonomic proposals have not been supported (e.g., proposals that modern humans should be split into several different species or genera, proposals that all the local forms and morphs of tigers, lions, elephants, whales, apes and so on should all be recognised as species or subspecies), and many of those 19th century taxonomists worked in a system where pretty much every recognisable population was deemed worthy of its own species name, and where pretty much every recognisable species was deemed worthy of its own genus name.

    Darren

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  8. 8. Heteromeles 12:01 pm 08/5/2012

    Thanks Darren. So, to simplify, what we’re seeing is a sort of sampling bias, where the rule of priority compels taxonomic researchers to resurrect names and groups that are compatible with their work?

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  9. 9. vdinets 12:38 pm 08/5/2012

    “many of those 19th century taxonomists worked in a system where pretty much every recognisable population was deemed worthy of its own species name, and where pretty much every recognisable species was deemed worthy of its own genus name.” – isn’t this an exact description of where PSC is taking us? (Not intending to start another lengthy discussion, just couldn’t resist pointing out the obvious…)

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  10. 10. naishd 1:52 pm 08/5/2012

    Heteromeles (comment 8): yes.

    Vdinets (comment 9): no.

    Darren

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  11. 11. THoltz 8:34 pm 08/5/2012

    David, Owen most emphatically did NOT argue that dinosaurs were cold-blooded. Indeed in the last footnote of the paper, he argues that, like “pachydermous mammals”, dinosaurs may have been warm-blooded.

    It has been argued that by proposing a mammal-ized group of reptiles in the Secondary compared to “lowly” modern reptiles would demonstrate transmuationism was not correct: obviously, if they most advanced reptiles were long ago, than there could be no progress in the history of life.

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  12. 12. David Marjanović 3:58 am 08/6/2012

    isn’t this an exact description of where PSC is taking us?

    No. Not every recognizable population is a clade. There’s ecophenotypic and clinal variation…

    David, Owen most emphatically did NOT argue that dinosaurs were cold-blooded. Indeed in the last footnote of the paper, he argues that, like “pachydermous mammals”, dinosaurs may have been warm-blooded.

    So he changed his opinion during the same paper in which he wrote that “[t]hey were the ‘most perfect modifications of the Reptilian type’, and ‘must have played the most conspicuous parts, in their respective characters as devourers of animals and feeders upon vegetables, that this world has ever witnessed in oviparous and cold-blooded creatures’”?

    It has been argued that by proposing a mammal-ized group of reptiles in the Secondary compared to “lowly” modern reptiles would demonstrate transmuationism was not correct: obviously, if they most advanced reptiles were long ago, th[e]n there could be no progress in the history of life.

    That’s what I’ve been trying to say.

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  13. 13. jtdwyer 8:58 am 08/6/2012

    On the other hand, I understand that earlier, ancient peoples were aware of giant bones in the ground and even placed them in temples. They never seemed to quite understand what they really were or which ones fit together, and their existence may have been responsible for or at least gave credence to myths of gods, giants, dragons, Griffiths and other creatures.

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  14. 14. BilBy 9:13 am 08/6/2012

    @jtdwyer – “Griffiths” are mythical creatures?! But, there’s a whole family of them four houses down the road!

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  15. 15. jtdwyer 11:31 am 08/6/2012

    Bilby – Oh, as in “myths of gods, giants, dragons, Griffiths and other creatures”? Thanks.
    If you hurry, they might be serving tea!

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  16. 16. jtdwyer 3:08 am 08/7/2012

    Bilby – sorry I didn’t get it at first – I had to look in the phone book…

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  17. 17. Dartian 6:32 am 08/7/2012

    Darren:
    What I’m getting it is that, while 19th century workers were sometimes ‘about right’, the larger aspects of their approach could not be considered accurate.

    In other words, they were right for the wrong reasons. (Or, to put it slightly less charitably, they arrived at the correct conclusions more by personal intuition than by following the scientific method.)

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  18. 18. Heteromeles 11:10 am 08/7/2012

    @Dartian–it’s worth noting when they got it largely right, even if they couldn’t articulate why that happened. Praising one’s own current process, while deriding the process of one’s antecedents, is probably the best way to end up in the ash-bin of history. Lasting results are what matter, especially in sciences based on priority and citation of prior work.

    I don’t recall the particular paper that set my comment at #2 off, except that it was one of the early works on arbuscular mycorrhizae. At that point, the researchers didn’t really know what they were dealing with, so they were precise and thorough in their descriptions of what they saw, and their paper was useful. Papers from a decade or two later were less useful, because those researchers thought they knew what was going on, and so cut corners in the descriptions of their processes and what they found. They happened to be wrong, and because of their reliance on their erroneous model to “fill in the blanks,” their papers are largely useless now.

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  19. 19. Perisoreus 12:26 pm 08/7/2012

    I absolutely agree with Heteromeles. It’s not the methods that tell us whether we defined the objects of our research correctly; it’s the objects that demand a constant rethinking of the methods. Scientific methods are not scientific because they incorporate some kind of truth or the only way to it, but because they are very cautious, precise and sceptical when it comes to their own approach.

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  20. 20. Dartian 3:21 am 08/8/2012

    Heteromeles:
    it’s worth noting when they got it largely right, even if they couldn’t articulate why that happened

    Of course, and I was not suggesting otherwise. To know the history of one’s discipline is important (and in anything that’s related to biological taxonomy, where nomenclatural rules of priority apply, it’s downright essential). But – just to take an obvious example – there’s a reason why we consider Darwin, and not Lamarck, to be the ‘real’ founder of the theory of evolution. Both concluded that organic evolution has occurred, but it does matter how they respectively arrived at that conclusion.

    (Actually, one would probably not even have to be particularly devil’s-advocatish to be able to make a reasonable argument that not even Darwin could ‘really’ be considered the founder of the theory of evolution. As he was ignorant of genetics, it was up to later scientists – notably Fisher, Haldane, and Wright in the 1930ies – to demonstrate that evolution really can occur by natural selection.)

    Praising one’s own current process, while deriding the process of one’s antecedents”

    I’m not praising or deriding anyone. I’m just noting that there should at least be a process that others can follow. Ideas are cheap, and anyone who’s clever (or crazy) enough can during his/her career come up with any number of speculations, suggestions, notions, or hunches, and even publish them. By sheer chance alone, some of those ideas may later turn out to be correct (at least according to our best present-day understanding). But in science, it’s far more important that ideas are testable and falsifiable.

    Perisoreus:
    I absolutely agree with Heteromeles.

    Haven’t you heard that only a Sith deals in absolutes?

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  21. 21. Christopher Taylor 11:16 pm 08/8/2012

    “Do, or do not. There is no try.” As spoken by Yoda, the Sith’s own fifth columnist.

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  22. 22. David Marjanović 8:54 am 08/10/2012

    Actually, one would probably not even have to be particularly devil’s-advocatish to be able to make a reasonable argument that not even Darwin could ‘really’ be considered the founder of the theory of evolution. As he was ignorant of genetics, it was up to later scientists – notably Fisher, Haldane, and Wright in the 1930ies – to demonstrate that evolution really can occur by natural selection.

    I’d consider this a test of the theory, not the founding of the theory itself.

    However, the expression of the theory of evolution by mutation & selection in terms of the mathematics of population genetics was a very important step, and that’s where especially Fisher comes in. Finally, it’s arguable if the Modern Synthesis should even be considered the same theory as Darwin’s version… no, actually, it’s not really arguable. :-)

    “Do, or do not. There is no try.” As spoken by Yoda, the Sith’s own fifth columnist.

    Good catch.

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