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The massive fossilized bones that emerged from slate quarries in Oxfordshire, England, beginning in the late 1600s were immediately mystifying.
In a world where evolution and extinction were not known concepts, experts at the time searched for an explanation. Perhaps they thought they belonged to A Roman war elephant or giant human.
It was not until 1824 William Buckland, the first professor of geology at the University of Oxford, described and named the first known dinosaur, based on the lower jaw, vertebrae and limb bones found in those local quarries. The largest femur was 2 feet long, 9 inches long, and about 10 inches in circumference.
Buckland named this creature, whose bones belonged to a megalosaurus, or large lizard, in a scientific paper he presented to the newly formed Geological Society of London on February 20, 1824. From the shape of its teeth, he believed it was a carnivore more than 40 feet long. (12 meters) tall, “huge elephant”. Buckland thought it was likely amphibious, living partly on land and water.
“In some ways, he got a lot right. This was a group of giant, extinct reptilian creatures.
“This was a radical idea,” said Steve Brusatte, a paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh and author of the book.The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of Their Lost World“.
“We all grew up watching dinosaur cartoons and watching Jurassic Park, with dinosaurs in the lunch box and toys. But imagine a world where there is no word dinosaur, where there is no concept of dinosaurs, and I was the first to realize that just by looking at some of the big bones from the ground.” .
The word dinosaur did not appear until 20 years later. It was coined by anatomist Richard Owen, founder of the Natural History Museum in London, based on the common characteristics he identified in his studies of Megalosaurus and two other dinosaurs, Iguanodon and Hylaeosaurus, which were first described in 1825 and 1833, respectively.
The Megalosaurus paper enhanced Buckland's professional reputation in the new field of geology, but its importance as the first scientific description of dinosaurs was only clear in retrospect.
At the time, Megalosaurus had captured the public's imagination with the discovery of complete fossils of giant marine reptiles such as ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs collected by paleontologist Mary Anning on the Dorset coast in England. No skeleton is complete Megalosaurus found.
But the megalosaurus had its influence on popular culture. Charles Dickens, who was a friend of Owen's, imagined meeting the megalosaurus On the muddy streets of London In the opening of his novel “Bleak House,” published in 1852.
It was also one of three dinosaur models displayed in London's Crystal Palace in 1854, home of the world's first dinosaur park. It's still there today. While the shape of its head is largely correct, today we know that it was about 6 meters (about 20 feet) long and walked on two legs, not four.
Who was Buckland?
It is not clear how Buckland developed his expertise as a geologist.
He was an ambitious and charismatic scholar, having read classics and theology at Oxford, graduating in 1805, and attending a wide range of classes, including anatomy, said Susan Newell, a historian and research associate at Oxford University's Natural History Museum. He was also in contact with other famous naturalists of the time such as Charles Cuvier in France, who was famous for his work comparing living animals with fossils.
“(Buckland) was the first person who really started to think well, what's going on with all these weird fossils turning up, down the road in this quarry in Oxford, and he started paying local quarrymen to find (the fossils and) keep the stuff,” Newell said. for him”.
“He's starting to put the puzzle together.”
A year after publishing his research on megalosaurs, Buckland married his unofficial assistant, Mary Morland was a gifted naturalist In her own right and the artist of the illustrations of megalosaurus fossils that appeared in the pioneering paper.
Later in his career, Buckland realized this Most of the UK was once covered by ice sheets After a trip to Switzerland, I realized that it was the glaciation period that shaped the British landscape rather than the biblical flood.
Newell said Buckland's scientific career ended prematurely, as he suffered a type of mental breakdown that prevented him from teaching. He died in 1856 in a sanitarium in London.
For paleontologists, the 200th anniversary of the first scientific naming of a dinosaur represents an opportunity to take stock and look back at what the field has learned over the past two centuries.
Dinosaurs, defined by their disappearance, were once thought to be an evolutionary failure. In fact, dinosaurs survived and thrived for 165 million years – a much longer period than the approximately 300,000 years that modern humans have roamed the planet thus far.
Today, about 1,000 species of dinosaurs have been named. There are about 50 new species of dinosaurs discovered each year, according to Brussatte.
“In fact, science is still in the discovery stage. Yes, it is now 200 years old, but we have only found a small fraction of the dinosaurs that ever lived,” Brusatte said. “Birds today are descendants of dinosaurs. There are (there are) more than 10,000 species of birds living now. And of course, dinosaurs lived for more than 150 million years. So do the math. There were probably thousands, if not millions, of different types of dinosaurs.
In the 1990s, fossils unearthed in China revealed conclusively that dinosaurs had feathers, confirming an old theory that they were the direct ancestors of backyard birds.
It's not just amazing fossil discoveries that make the present a golden age for paleontology. New technology such as CT scanning and computational methods allow paleontologists to reconstruct and understand dinosaurs in much greater detail.
For example, in some feathered fossils, small structures called melanosomes are preserved that once contained pigment. By comparing melanosomes with those in living birds, scientists can determine the likely original colors of the feathers.
There is still a lot to learn. It's not entirely clear how and why dinosaurs got so big, and it's not really known what sounds these creatures might have made.
“I think it's almost impossible for us to think of a world in which people didn't know about dinosaurs,” Brusatte said.
“However, there will be things in the future where people will say how did we not know that in 2024. (This anniversary) should give us some perspective.”
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