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.
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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On this date in 1824, the world changed. Reverend William Buckland presented a paper to the Geological Society that outlined the discovery of mysterious bones in the English countryside. The paper was entitled “Notice on the Megalosaurus or Great Fossil Lizard of Stonesfield” and it is historically important because it represents the first scientific description of what would come to be known as a dinosaur.
Buckland’s descriptions of the gargantuan bones are tentative. He wrote “…in the hope that, imperfect as are the present materials, their communication to the public may induce those who possess other parts of the same reptile, to transmit to the Society such further information as may lead to a more complete elucidation of its osteology.”
Having not a great deal of information on which to base his ideas, Buckland estimated his Megalosaurus to be sixty to seventy feet long and its height to be that of the largest elephants. We now know much more about Megalosaurus and recognize it as a bipedal carnivorous animal that bears no small resemblance to famous dinosaurs like Allosaurus and Tyrannosaurus–though it was well shy of 60 feet long. Surviving illustrations show the various parts of the skeleton Buckland had discovered, along with a very haunting lower jaw fragment.
This first description of a dinosaur marks the official start of humanity’s fascination with the great animals of the Mesozoic. In sounding the starting gun in the race for the past, William Buckland secured for himself and Megalosaurus a place in scientific history.
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On this day in dinosaurs, William Diller Matthew arrived in the world. He is primarily known as a prominent mammalogist during his time and for acting as a curator at the American Museum of Natural History.
Matthew published 240 scientific papers–some suggesting that climate was a driving force of evolution, and others where he hypothesized that humans first originated in Asia (which played a role in the Museum’s legendary Central Asiatic Expeditions). He was also a strong advocate of a modern system of taxonomy.
On this day in dinosaurs, we remember the contributions of John Ostrom–his struggle and those who took the steps to make his once-outlandish notions into mainstream scientific thought.
He may be most famous for giving the world Deinonychus, but John Ostrom’s biggest contributions to science were his ideas about warm-blooded dinosaurs and the evolutionary links between non-avian dinosaurs and modern-day birds.
Ostrom was one of those who kickstarted the “Dinosaur Renaissance” and brought new ideas to the science of paleontology that are still reverberating through the field today. He was one of the first to postulate dinosaurs moving in herds from trackways and also contributed significant studies on Archaeopteryx. In his later years, he watched a flurry of feathered dinosaurs emerge from China, further vindicating his hypotheses from decades earlier.
1839 – Harry Seeley Born
Today, we also celebrate the birthday of the man who classified dinosaurs into two major groups: Saurischians and Ornithischians. The “lizard-hipped” and “bird-hipped” dinosaurs, respectively, were named by Seeley for their way their hips resembled those of modern animals.
Until the development of cladistic analyses in the 1980s, paleontologists could not even conclusively state that all dinosaurs had a common ancestor. We also recognize that, somewhat confusingly, “bird-hipped” dinosaurs did not evolve into birds. The “lizard-hipped” saurischians include sauropods and theropods–the group most closely related to modern birds.
Classifications are always hotly contested in the scientific community, so for Seeley’s system to stand since he proposed it in 1888 is a major achievement.
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Many, if not most, children go through a “dinosaur phase.” It’s almost a rite of passage. Some of these fascinations last a few weeks or a few months. Some persist for years. Some cases are even terminal. But whether young or old, learning about dinosaurs prompts a cavalcade of consideration in a wide range of subject matter.
Dinosaurs belong to the natural world of the past, but their world has grown into our own. So studying nature and dinosaurs requires inquiry into biology, ecology, and evolution. Seeking for origins, we plunge into physics and chemistry. The forces that shape the world are important too, geology and plate tectonics and continental drift. Then there’s geography–where the dinosaurs lived and where the museums that house them stand.
The names of the dinosaurs are tongue-twisting miniature sonatas for voice that beguile young ears into a love of language. The stories of bone hunters and science through the generations prompts an appreciation for human history as well as natural history. We learn the techniques that artists and movie makers use to resurrected ancient beasts. We learn about fossil preparation and casting, museum exhibits, and how animatronic dinosaurs operate. We learn about where to see dinosaur sculptures along our roadways and where fossilized trackways lie exposed in the rock.
Dinosaurs are indeed the gateway to science, but they are the gateway to much more than that. They are the catalyst for critical thinking and a worldview rooted in reality and reason. They are the path through which our eager minds find the connections that link us to all of nature.
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On this day in dinosaurs the final episode of Doctor Who’s Invasion of the Dinosaurs series aired in the UK. While lambasted for its special effects, the series used dinosaurs only as a distraction. The plot is driven by a group of people from the future who want to return to the past to build a better, more natural world to inhabit. So they manipulate time to bring dinosaurs into London as a diversion, prompting evacuations which will allow them to take control.
Sound confusing? Well, it’s vintage Doctor Who and the series was released on home video years later so it’s a darling of many fans–despite the underwhelming dinosaurs. But if you had a machine that could affect time, what would you do with it? Would you be keen on bringing dinosaurs to the 20th or 21st century, or travel back to the Mesozoic yourself?
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We find them everywhere–on our phones, tablets, and computers; on television and movies; in our libraries; and our classrooms. But most of us don’t get our first glimpse of a dinosaur as its fossilized skeletal fragments erode out of a hillside. For many of us, our first encounter with a dinosaur is at the natural history museum.
Natural history museums are among the finest institutions ever invented. They are much more than exhibit halls. Museum collections represent the entire biodiversity of our planet, and their active research divisions continue to investigate nature, both past and present. In addition to curating millions of objects that are accessible to the public and to scholars, many museums maintain educational outreach programs of all kinds.
But natural history museums, for all their practicality and admirable practices, are much more than utilitarian–they are portals into the imagination. Where else can you travel around the world and through millennia in just a few steps? Here, dinosaurs take their place as the stars of the Mesozoic. Yet, they are seen as a few fascinating chapters in the much larger history of life on Earth. The animals of today are all descended from creatures that lived long ago. Lifeforms change, but the struggles of life remain constant on this dynamic and bountiful globe.
A trip to the museum can seem like a fun way to spend a day with dino-crazy youngsters. But visiting as an adult allows a person to contemplate their own participation in the progression of life. We are given the privilege of looking up at those fossil skeletons and wondering about where we fit into the story of our universe. It is our insatiable wonder that draws us to the extinct dinosaurs, and the same wonder that drives us to the natural history museum. We crave connections to the wild and wondrous natural world–connections which our modern, tech-savvy, fast-paced lives have severed. What better place to find your muse than at the museum?
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