an introduction to dinosaurs

1. the first discoveries


Humans have been discovering fossils for thousands of years. Many ancient civilisations documented these strange petrified remains, and in some cases the fossils they found may have been the basis for popular mythical creatures. We know the ancient Chinese considered these fossils to be dragon bones.

Even much later in 17th century Europe, early scientists weren't sure about the fossils they found. In 1676 a curator of an English Museum, Reverend Robert Plot, discovered a large fossil thigh bone. He suggested that it may have belonged to an ancient species of human giants.

It wasn't until 1824 that William Buckland, an eccentric clergyman and palaeontologist, produced the first scientific description of a dinosaur based on fragments of a jaw and bone found in Oxfordshire. Buckland named the creature Megalosaurus. Although, like scientists before him he thought the fossils belonged to some ancient, giant version of a modern day reptile. It was only when a biologist by the name of Richard Owen viewed William's collection that the fossils were recognised for what they truely were; remains of long dead animals, unlike anything that exists on earth today. In 1842, in a Report on British Fossil Reptiles, Owen coined the name Dinosauria.

Reverend Robert Plot's fossil thigh bone, dubbed "Scrotum Humanum" as it resembled a pair of human testicles. Even though the fossil is now lost, we know it was likely the end of a Megalosaurus femur.
Photograph of the first Iguanodon skeleton being mounted in an outdated kangaroo-like pose. (Brussels, 1882)
Lithography from William Buckland's "Notice on the Megalosaurus or great Fossil Lizard of Stonesfield", 1824. It is captioned, "Anterior extremity of the right lower jaw of the Megalosaurus from Stonesfield near Oxford".


In the late 1800s, a fierce rivalry between two American scientists, Othniel Marsh and Edward Cope, led to the discovery of 136 new species of dinosaurs. Their ruthlessly competitive fossil hunting came to be known as the Bone Wars. Some of their most famous dinosaur discoveries included Triceratops, Diplodocus, Stegosaurus and Allosaurus. Their discoveries not only inspired institutions around the world to begin conducting their own research, but resulted in dinosaurs truely entering into popular culture.

An almost complete Allosaurus (AMNH #5753) discovered by Cope's fossil hunters at Como Bluff in 1879.
The 1897 painting of "Laelaps" (now Dryptosaurus) by Charles R. Knight.


The paintings of Charles R. Knight were the first influential representations of these new discoveries. His paintings helped popularise dinosaurs and his early work (left) of two dinosaurs fighting was remarkably accurate in the context of how dinosaurs would later be depicted over the proceeding half a century.

For the first half of the 20th century, dinosaurs were portrayed largely as sluggish, cold blooded reptiles. It wasn't until the 1960s that, thanks to the work of palaeontologists such as John Ostrom and later his student Robert T. Bakker, dinosaurs were re-evaluted.

2. the dinosaur renaissance

New discoveries throughout the later part of the 20th century completely changed our understanding of dinosaurs.

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