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Fossils testify to the age of the giant reptile

Posted in Animals, Biology, Dinosaurs, Prehistory on Friday, 13 April 2012

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This edited article about dinosaurs originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 688 published on 22 March 1975.

Tyrannosaurus rex, picture, image, illustration

Tyrannosaurus Rex attacking a Styracosaurus by William Francis Phillipps

A hungry two-legged reptile crept along the sands of the Gobi desert in Central Asia. As it snuffled in the sand, this creature, named an Oviraptor (or egg-stealer), came upon just the meal he was looking for – a nest of eggs.

The eggs were in varying stages of development and some had inside them the partly-formed young of a horned reptile called a Protoceratops.

It must have been a great find for the Oviraptor, but he did not have long to enjoy it. A violent sandstorm arose and buried the egg-stealer and his plunder.

All this is supposition. But what is fact is that millions of years later, in the 1920s, scientists found the nest, and several others. Inside them were the fossilised remains of the baby dinosaurs in various stages of growth, from newly hatched young to adults measuring 1.5  metres to over two metres. And inside the eggs were found preserved embryos.

The men had come to the Gobi desert in the hope of finding evidence of the origin of Man. Instead, they found evidence of a drama that had occurred millions of years ago. And they made an even greater discovery. They found the fossilised remains of small mammals which were possibly the beginnings of all mammals, large and small. At the same time, they opened up a whole new field of Man’s knowledge of the past.

Their discovery provided support for the theory of evolution, put forward by Charles Darwin in 1859. This states that all present-day living creatures developed from earlier forms which have gone through a long and gradual process of change adaptation.

Evidence of this change is shown in many ways. The fossil record in the rocks shows how some modern animals have evolved from earlier forms. Fossils are remains, shapes and impressions of animals and plants which lived millions of years ago, preserved in stone. They include bones and shells of animals, impressions of plant leaves, footprints of animals and traces of such delicate creatures as jellyfish and worms.

By knowing the comparative age of the rocks, geologists can tell when the creatures were living.

If you look a  the evolution of the horse, you will find Darwin’s theory easy to understand. The earliest known member of the horse family was Eohippus, which was about the size of a fox. Over a period of fifty million years, the horse has altered in very slow stages to suit its environment until it has become the horse we know today.

This is the story told in fossils, and is the sort of thing you can explore for yourself if you join a club concerned with geology, or have a relative who will guide you in your search.

Darwin worked out his theory after he had spent five years as a naturalist on H.M.S. Beagle. He studied the geology and natural history of the countries he visited in the South Seas. Round about the same time, another scientist, Alfred Russel Wallace, made a natural history expedition. While in Borneo, he wrote an essay on evolution, which independently, supported the one put forward by Darwin.

Despite this, the Victorians, in whose era the theory was presented, found it very hard to accept. It was not until geologists began finding the fossils of creatures of the past that they began to think there might be some truth in it.

The remains of dinosaurs had been discovered in various parts of the U.S.A., centuries before, but nobody knew what they were until the 19th century, when geologists began piecing them together. Among them were Dean William Buckland, who found the remains of a giant lizard which he named Megalosaurus. And in 1822 in Sussex, Dr. Gideon Mantell saw fossilised teeth and bones which were part of a large reptile, now called an lguanodon.

Sir Richard Owen, a famous anatomist, called these beings “dinosaurs” by putting together two Greek words which mean “terrible reptile” (deinos and saurus). Many of these creatures lived up to their name. The Tyrannosaurus, for example, stood nearly ten metres high and was about sixteen metres long.

With this evidence, and the lectures of Thomas Huxley who advocated them strongly, Darwin’s findings could no longer be ignored, for they laid the foundations of our knowledge of life itself.

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