The first 3 dinosaur fossils led to the recognition of a new group of animals, the dinosaurs.
The first nearly-complete dinosaur skeleton in New Jersey spurs modern paleontology.
People have been finding dinosaur fossils for hundreds of years, probably even thousands of years. The Greeks and Romans may have found fossils, giving rise to their many ogre and griffin legends. There are references to “dragon” bones found in Wucheng, Sichuan, China (written by Chang Qu) over 2,000 years ago; these were probably dinosaur fossils.
Much later, in 1676, a huge thigh bone (femur) was found in England by Reverend Plot. It was thought that the bone belonged to a “giant,” but was probably from a dinosaur. A report of this find was published by R. Brookes in 1763.
The First Dinosaur Fossil Scientifically Described
The first dinosaur to be described scientifically was Megalosaurus. This genus was named in 1824, by William Buckland; Gideon Mantell (not Ferdinand August von Ritgen) assigned the scientific type species name, Megalosaurus bucklandii. Buckland (1784-1856) was a British fossil hunter and clergyman who discovered collected fossils. (Note: the first dinosaur found was Iguanodon, but it was named and described later than Megalodon.)
Megalosaurus was the first dinosaur ever described scientifically and first theropod dinosaur discovered (this is all in hindsight, because the dinosaurs had not yet been recognized as a separate taxonomic group - the word dinosaur hadn’t even been invented yet).
The first dinosaur models (life size and made of concrete) were made by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins of England in 1854. The first dinosaur used for amusement was a life-size model of an Iguanodon (also made by Hawkins) that was used to house a dinner party for scientists (including Richard Owen) at a major exhibition. The invitations to the party were sent on fake pterodactyl wings. The party took place in London, England, in 1854.
Other Early Dinosaur Finds
Gideon A. Mantell (1790-1852) was another early British fossil hunter. He described and named Iguanodon, a duck-billed plant-eater (1825); Iguanodon’s teeth and a few bones were found in 1822, perhaps by his wife, Mrs. Mary Mantell, in Sussex, (southern) England. Gideon Mantell also named Hylaeosaurus, an armored plant-eating dinosaur (in 1833) , and others.
The Name “Dinosauria”
Sir Richard Owen (1804-1892) was a pioneering British comparative anatomist who coined the term dinosauria (from the Greek “deinos” meaning fearfully great, and “sauros” meaning lizard), recognizing them as a suborder of large, extinct reptiles in 1841.
- Column-like legs (instead of the sprawling legs that other reptiles have)
- Five fused vertebrae fused to the pelvic girdle.
Owen presented dinosaurs as a separate taxonomic group in order to bolster his arguments against the newly proposed theory of evolution (although Darwin’s “Origin of the Species” wasn’t published until 1859, the basic ideas of evolution were known, but its mechanisms, including natural selection, were not). Ironically, Owen’s work actually helped support the evolutionists arguments.
This new taxonomic name, Dinosauria, and new group of reptiles was only the beginning of a great scientific exploration. Since Owen’s time, about 330 dinosaur genera have been described. Every few months (sometimes every few weeks), a new species is unearthed (for recent finds, see Dino News). Paleontologists have varying estimates of how many dinosaur genera existed during the Mesozoic Era; estimates range from about 1,000 to over 10,000. Whatever this number really is, there are a lot of new dinosaurs left to discover!
The First Nearly-Complete Dinosaur Skeleton and First American Dinosaur
The first dinosaur fossil found in the US was a thigh bone found by Dr. Caspar Wistar, in Gloucester County, New Jersey, in 1787 (it has since been lost, but more fossils were later found in the area).
In 1800 in Massachusetts, USA, Pliny Moody found 1-foot (31 cm) long fossilized footprints at his farm that were thought by Harvard and Yale scholars to be from “Noah’s Raven.” Many other dinosaur footprints were been 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 Valley, Massachusetts.
The first nearly-complete dinosaur skeleton was discovered by William Parker Foulke. Foulke had heard of a discovery made by workmen in a Cretaceous marl (a crumbly type of soil) pit on the John E. Hopkins farm in Haddonfield, New Jersey beginning in 1838. Foulke heard of the discovery and recognized its importance in 1858. 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 (meaning “Foulke’s big lizard”). It was a duck-billed dinosaur (but it is now a doubtful genus because there is so little fossil information about it). The “Haddonfield Hadrosaurus” is on display at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences.
Leidy’s analysis of this Hadrosaur skeleton was thorough; from its anatomy, he wrote imaginitively about the dinosaur’s way of life and its death. Leidy wrote, “Hadrosaurus was most probably amphibious; and though its remains were obtained from a marine deposit, the rarity of them in the latter leads us to suppose that those in our possession had been carried down the current of a river, upon whose banks the animals lived.” (Quoted from J. Leidy, Account of the Remains of a Fossil Reptile Recently Discovered at Haddonfield, New Jersey. Proceedings Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, Dec. 14, 1858 pp.1-16.)
This study influenced the popular image of dinosaurs and dinosaur science for years. This beautiful Hadrosaur skeleton made dinosaurs come to life in peoples’ imaginations and spurred generations of paleontologists.