When Was The First Dinosaur Discovered?

I was barely a teen when Jurassic Park hit the theater. I just loved it and, like a lot of kids, it was for me the beginning of a passion for dinosaurs. It was not a long one, I must say. Truth is, the movie did more for my passion for cinema. But I read a lot on the subject anyway and I’m still quite intrigued by those creatures from another time. I recently realized though, that there’s one question I never asked myself:

Who Discovered the First Dinosaur Bone?

Like a lot of important discoveries, nobody really knew what it was at first. In fact, it seems that ancient peoples unknowingly stumbled upon dinosaur bones, but it was not until the seventeenth century that the first inklings of their existence began to emerge. Apparently, a reference to “dragon” bones in China dating from over 2,000 years ago could possibly be about dinosaurs!

Is This a Giant Human or What?

In 1677, a curator of an English museum named Robert Plot discovered what would later be recognized as the first dinosaur bone. At the time, Plot’s interpretation was that the bone belonged to a gigantic human. Nevertheless, Plot’s findings opened the door and others would investigate.

1824. Megalosaurus, the First Bones of Dinosaur Discovered by William Buckland

The first professor of geology at Oxford University, the eccentric William Buckland, embarked on his mission to expand the frontiers of knowledge, combining his role as a professor with his unofficial curatorship of the university museum. In 1815, during his travels, he stumbled upon the bones of an animal previously discovered by Plot. Analyzing the teeth, jaw, and limbs, Buckland concluded in 1824 that these remains belonged to an extinct, carnivorous lizard. He named this ancient creature “Megalosaurus,” becoming the first person to assign a name to a dinosaur species.

After Buckland, Mary Ann Mantell, wife of geologist Gideon Mantell, made an interesting discovery during a walk in Sussex, England, in 1822. It was fossilized bones that closely resembled those of an iguana skeleton. This “fossil reptile” was aptly named Iguanodon, becoming the second dinosaur species to be formally identified.

The Birth of “Dinosauria”

In 1842, a British scientist named Sir Richard Owen was examining the fossil collection of William Devonshire Saull when encountered a fossilized chunk of spine thought to belong to the ancient reptile known as “Iguanodon.” Through comparative analysis, Owen made two remarkable conclusions: the fossils represented similar creatures and these creatures were distinct from any living species. That’s when he coined the term “dinosaurs,” meaning “terrible lizards,” forever marking these ancient beings as a distinct group.

Sir Richard Owen coined the term “dinosaurs” in 1842.

While the study of dinosaurs received a significant boost with Owen’s work, it was not until the late 1800s that a wealth of new evidence emerged. A fierce rivalry between American scientists Othniel Marsh and Edward Cope took center stage—it is known as The Bone Wars. These wealthy and competitive researchers ventured into the Rocky Mountains, unearthing a plethora of dinosaur bones from various sites. Their intense competition led to the discovery of 136 new dinosaur species, igniting global fascination and inspiring scientists and prestigious institutions worldwide to delve into the study of dinosaurs.

The dinosaurs were always here, waiting to be discovered. It just took a lot of time and studying them will keep revealing incredible new information for a long while too.

So, Sir Richard Owen is not the only scientist from the Victorian era I wrote about. In fact, I recently published an article about Marianne North, a Pioneer in Botanical Exploration and Art.

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