GEOL 104 Dinosaurs: A Natural History

Fall Semester 2000
The History of Prehistory: Dinosaur research through time

Fossils (from Latin fossilium “that which is dug up”) are the physical remains of past life and its activities preserved in the rock record.

Dinosaur fossils have been weathering out of the rock since LONG before humans evolved, yet “Dinosauria” was not recognized until 1842. Why did it take this long?

Before scientists could recognize the existence of dinosaurs, they had to recognize that fossils were the remains of dead (not alive), unknown, extinct (not living anywhere) organisms.

Many cultures in the world live in regions where fossils can be found. In most, they are explained as traces of the mythic past (an ancient time when monsters and gods roamed the Earth) or of supernatural beings (dragons, trolls, thunder birds and thunder horses, etc.).

In western Europe after the Enlightenment the belief many natural historians questioned the literal reality mythic pasts of European culture (Genesis, Classical mythology, and Germanic and Celtic folklore). Some other explanation was needed.

Were fossils really remains of animals and plants?

Alternative explanations offered

It became accepted that fossils were the remains of dead organisms

Were fossils the remains of known animals and plants?

It became accepted that fossils were the remains of unknown organisms

How could animals like Mosasaurus or Pterodactylus or the mammoth and mastodon remain unknown?
Were they hiding in parts of the world as yet unexplored by Europeans?

It became accepted that fossils were the remains of extinct organisms

The stage was now set for the recognition of dinosaurs.

First major discovery, in Britain, by Reverend William Buckland:

First good evidence of giant terrestrial (land dwelling) reptiles in the ancient past

Next major discovery, in the Weald region of southern England, by husband and wife team Dr. Gideon and Mary Ann Mantell:

Third major discovery, also in the Weald region and also by the Mantells:

Other discoveries were made on the European continents in the 1830s and 1840s.

In 1841, Sir Richard Owen (British Museum of Natural History, the “British Cuvier”) gave public talks about the fossil reptiles of Britain. Concluded that Megalosaurus, Iguanodon, and Hylaeosaurus formed their own distinct group:

When he wrote up the talk for publication, he proposed the name Dinosauria (“fearfully great lizards”) for this group.
Other discoveries were being made in Britain and on the mainland, but none were yet of complete dinosaur fossils: still imagined them to be giant lizards with some mammal-like features.

In the 1850s the Great Exposition (a “world’s fair” to highlight the achievements and discoveries of the British Empire under Queen Victoria) was planned. The Natural History Museum’s exhibit was to be a journey through geologic time, showing life-sized replicas of prehistoric animals and plants.

Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins sculpted Megalosaurus, Iguanodon, and Hylaeosaurus (and other non-dinosaurs) under Owen’s guidance. When the display opened up, millions saw dinosaurs (as then conceived) for the first time: quickly became popular subjects for popular science, political cartoons, etc.

The Great Exposition introduced dinosaurs to the general public, but complete dinosaur fossils were still unknown. Dinosaurs were still thought to be essentially lizard-like, except for a few mammal-like features. This would change with later discoveries in North America.

Early North American discoveries:

In 1858, first major North American dinosaur fossil:

First recognition of bipedal dinosaurs

In 1866, another New Jersey discovery:

Major important rivalry between Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh of Yale University:

In Europe, new discoveries were also being made:

Beginning of 20th Century, new, wealthy museums (such as Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History and the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), under Cope’s student Henry Fairfield Osborn) began to sponsor major expeditions to American West.

Also, the AMNH and various European museums began the era of imperial paleontology (major expeditions to foreign lands, to bring fossils back to the home institution)

In the 1920s, beginning of Great Depression and WWII led to decline in large scale paleontological digs. Also, dinosaur science began to lose its scientific appeal:

By mid-1900s, only a couple of active dinosaur researchers worldwide

However, dinosaur research did continue, and some other important discoveries were made.

In 1960s, John Ostrom of Yale University began looking for dinosaurs in rocks from the early part of the Cretaceous Period (a “twilight zone” for dinosaurs) in Montana and Wyoming.

1970s: Beginning of the Dinosaur Renaissance:

Remainder of the course represents the work of Ostrom’s colleagues and students

To Next Lecture.
To Previous Lecture.
To Syllabus.