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Buckland and Mantell proved that dinosaurs had existed

Posted in Dinosaurs, Discoveries, Geology, Historical articles, History, Prehistory, Religion, Science on Tuesday, 4 February 2014

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This edited article about dinosaurs first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 541 published on 27 May 1972.

Megalosaurus,  picture, image, illustration

Fossilised Megalosaurus remains were found in Stonesfield by Dean Buckland

Dean William Buckland had good cause to look astonished when he dug into a slate quarry at Stonesfield and found what he could only describe as the remains of a giant lizard.

A set of the most unusual teeth he had ever seen attached to a massive jaw, part of a pelvis, a section of a shoulder blade, and several large backbones were all part of a giant skeleton which must have once belonged to some grotesque monster of prehistoric times. Dean Buckland worked out that the creature must have measured fifty feet long and eight feet high, classified it as a reptile, and gave it the name of ‘Megalosaurus’.

Remains of such creatures had been found before this discovery which was made at the beginning of the 19th century. The first hints of these long-buried monsters of the past had been found in various parts of the U.S.A. A bone dug up here, a footprint found there, but there had never been enough evidence to establish the fact that dinosaurs had ever really existed. No records were kept of these first discoveries such as the thigh bone found in New Jersey in the 18th century, or the giant rib discovered on the south bank of Yellowstone River in 1806. These early finds were virtually ignored. Prehistoric monsters were found only in fairy tales, they surely had never existed.

But had they? The work of two English pioneers in dinosaur discovery did much to refute such an attitude. Dean Buckland, the geologist who had found parts of the giant skeleton of the creature he named Megalosaurus, and Dr. Gideon Mantell were to become the founders of modern palaeontology, and to provide irrefutable evidence of the existence of such monsters.

In March 1822, Doctor Mantell and his wife were visiting a patient in Lewes, Sussex. It was here that the second dinosaur remains to be found in England were discovered by accident in a pile of rubble which been put aside for road repairs. Mrs Mantell had noticed something glinting in the rubble heap, and when she and her husband went closer to investigate they found that the glint came from some fossilised teeth embedded in a piece of stone. His curiosity aroused, Dr Mantell returned to the site for some weeks afterwards and, to his great delight, found not only more teeth, but also a number of large fossilised bones, none of which he could identify.

So he decided to send them to Baron Cuvier in Paris, who was a famous authority on back-boned animals. The Baron declared that the bones were those of an extinct hippo, and that the teeth belonged to an extinct rhino. Dr Mantell could not accept such an opinion and so he took the teeth to the Royal College of Surgeons’ Museum in London where he compared the teeth with anatomical specimens of other animals. He soon found that they resembled the teeth of an Iguana, a lizard found in Central America, though the teeth he had found were much larger. Mantell decided to call the creature whose teeth he had found, an Iguanodon, which means literally, ‘Iguana-tooth’.

It was Sir Richard Owen, a famous anatomist, who coined the phrase ‘dinosaur,’ as a general term to describe these prehistoric reptiles. He used two Greek words: ‘deinos’ meaning ‘terrible,’ or ‘fearfully great,’ and ‘saurus,’ which means ‘reptile.’ And many of these creatures certainly lived up to their name! The Tyrannosaurus, for example, which stood thirty feet high and measured fifty feet in length.

By 1840 other creatures had been added to the store of discoveries. Some were found in England, others on the Continent. But until this time no complete skeleton of such a creature had come to light. Then, in 1878, a great discovery was made in Belgium which proved, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that these monsters had existed, The discovery was made at Bernissart, in a coal mine a thousand feet below the ground when some miners stumbled upon a mass of fossilised bones when they were developing a gallery in one of the mines. The experts were immediately called in and for three years the chief of the laboratory at the Royal Natural History Museum of Belgium, Monsieur de Pauw, lived as a miner digging out bones and other Iguanodon remains until he had discovered over twenty complete skeletons. These Iguanodons must have fallen into a ravine one thousand feet below the ground and getting them out intact posed a major problem for the excavators. But they were carefully extracted and numbered, cleaned and rearranged, and finally exhibited at the Natural History Museum in Brussels.

By examining these remains the experts were able to gain an extensive knowledge of what the Iguanodon looked like and in what conditions it lived. It is believed that they lived in a tropical environment and stood about 16 feet high, measuring 31 feet along the backbone.

So by the 1880s the remains of two types of dinosaurs had been found, and proof of the existence of such creatures had at last been firmly established. Dinosaur-digging was to capture the imagination of many men for years to come for the exciting search for long-forgotten monsters of the past had only just begun!

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