February 21st


It’s easy to dismiss the earliest dinosaur detectives as primitive and lacking any of today’s sophisticated understanding of the great creatures. But we cannot be blinded by contingency and hindsight. Megalosaurus (discussed here yesterday), Iguanodon, and the other early dinosaurs were not only fragmentary when first discovered–they were unprecedented. The people who discovered these beasts lived in a world still rooted in Biblical dogma.

William Buckland lecturing / Museum of the History of Science, University of Oxford
William Buckland lecturing / Museum of the History of Science, University of Oxford

Reverend William Buckland, the ‘father’ of Megalosaurus, was a dean at Westminster. He hoped to find geologic evidence to support the account of the Biblical flood. In those days, science was–as it still is–reaching out to the frontiers of the unknown. The mammoths, ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, pterosaurs, and dinosaurs rising out of Europe’s sedimentary rocks were evidence of a long, distant past not mentioned in religious texts. Therefore, new interpretation was needed. The Earth was far older than originally thought, and its former inhabitants were stranger, more fantastic, and more terrible in the eyes of those early geologic pioneers.

Buckland referred to the exciting enterprise as “undergroundology.” Think of what you would do if you had stumbled upon gigantic bones no one had ever seen. What conclusions would you draw? Without full specimens, comparable skeletons, or living analogues, how could anyone be sure what the primeval world was like? It’s a testament to these early bone hunters that their estimates–while fanciful today–were not more ridiculous.

Next time you’re at the museum, imagine finding just one or two bones of a dinosaur on display. Could you dream up the rest? This exercise is humbling, and re-energizes any dinophile who contemplates undergroundology and the beginning our quest to learn about dinosaurs.

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