Jurassic Dinosaurs - History of Study

History of Study

Further information: History of paleontology

Dinosaur fossils have been known for millennia, although their true nature was not recognized. The Chinese, whose modern word for dinosaur is konglong (恐龍, or "terrible dragon"), considered them to be dragon bones and documented them as such. For example, Hua Yang Guo Zhi, a book written by Zhang Qu during the Western Jin Dynasty, reported the discovery of dragon bones at Wucheng in Sichuan Province. Villagers in central China have long unearthed fossilized "dragon bones" for use in traditional medicines, a practice that continues today. In Europe, dinosaur fossils were generally believed to be the remains of giants and other creatures killed by the Great Flood.

Scholarly descriptions of what would now be recognized as dinosaur bones first appeared in the late 17th century in England. Part of a bone, now known to have been the femur of a Megalosaurus, was recovered from a limestone quarry at Cornwell near Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, England, in 1676. The fragment was sent to Robert Plot, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford and first curator of the Ashmolean Museum, who published a description in his Natural History of Oxfordshire in 1677. He correctly identified the bone as the lower extremity of the femur of a large animal, and recognized that it was too large to belong to any known species. He therefore concluded it to be the thigh bone of a giant human similar to those mentioned in the Bible. In 1699, Edward Lhuyd, a friend of Sir Isaac Newton, was responsible for the first published scientific treatment of what would now be recognized as a dinosaur when he described and named a sauropod tooth, "Rutellum implicatum", that had been found in Caswell, near Witney, Oxfordshire.

Between 1815 and 1824, the Rev William Buckland, a professor of geology at Oxford University, collected more fossilized bones of Megalosaurus and became the first person to describe a dinosaur in a scientific journal. The second dinosaur genus to be identified, Iguanodon, was discovered in 1822 by Mary Ann Mantell – the wife of English geologist Gideon Mantell. Gideon Mantell recognized similarities between his fossils and the bones of modern iguanas. He published his findings in 1825.

The study of these "great fossil lizards" soon became of great interest to European and American scientists, and in 1842 the English paleontologist Richard Owen coined the term "dinosaur". He recognized that the remains that had been found so far, Iguanodon, Megalosaurus and Hylaeosaurus, shared a number of distinctive features, and so decided to present them as a distinct taxonomic group. With the backing of Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the husband of Queen Victoria, Owen established the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, London, to display the national collection of dinosaur fossils and other biological and geological exhibits.

In 1858, the first known American dinosaur was discovered, in marl pits in the small town of Haddonfield, New Jersey (although fossils had been found before, their nature had not been correctly discerned). The creature was named Hadrosaurus foulkii. It was an extremely important find: Hadrosaurus was one of the first nearly complete dinosaur skeletons found (the first was in 1834, in Maidstone, Kent, England), and it was clearly a bipedal creature. This was a revolutionary discovery as, until that point, most scientists had believed dinosaurs walked on four feet, like other lizards. Foulke's discoveries sparked a wave of dinosaur mania in the United States.

Dinosaur mania was exemplified by the fierce rivalry between Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, both of whom raced to be the first to find new dinosaurs in what came to be known as the Bone Wars. The feud probably originated when Marsh publicly pointed out that Cope's reconstruction of an Elasmosaurus skeleton was flawed: Cope had inadvertently placed the plesiosaur's head at what should have been the animal's tail end. The fight between the two scientists lasted for over 30 years, ending in 1897 when Cope died after spending his entire fortune on the dinosaur hunt. Marsh 'won' the contest primarily because he was better funded through a relationship with the US Geological Survey. Unfortunately, many valuable dinosaur specimens were damaged or destroyed due to the pair's rough methods: for example, their diggers often used dynamite to unearth bones (a method modern paleontologists would find appalling). Despite their unrefined methods, the contributions of Cope and Marsh to paleontology were vast: Marsh unearthed 86 new species of dinosaur and Cope discovered 56, a total of 142 new species. Cope's collection is now at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, while Marsh's is on display at the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University.

After 1897, the search for dinosaur fossils extended to every continent, including Antarctica. The first Antarctic dinosaur to be discovered, the ankylosaurid Antarctopelta oliveroi, was found on Ross Island in 1986, although it was 1994 before an Antarctic species, the theropod Cryolophosaurus ellioti, was formally named and described in a scientific journal.

Current dinosaur "hot spots" include southern South America (especially Argentina) and China. China in particular has produced many exceptional feathered dinosaur specimens due to the unique geology of its dinosaur beds, as well as an ancient arid climate particularly conducive to fossilization.

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