Paleontologists are still unraveling the mystery of the first dinosaur  science

Paleontologists are still unraveling the mystery of the first dinosaur science


Paleontologists are still investigating what carnivorous dinosaur Megalosaurus it looked like.
De Agostini via Getty Images

The reptilian giant found in England’s Stonesfield quarry needed a name. Throughout the 18th century and into the 19th century, European naturalists had pondered the strange and gigantic bones of long-dead creatures discovered in quarries and sent to them through the veins of colonialism. For a long time, indigenous peoples and others around the world have wondered about the similar remains of animals that clearly no longer roam the planet. But in the early 19th century, as science began to name and describe fossilized creatures through its own language and standards, the curious bones needed proper titles. Among these early efforts, in 1824, Oxford University geologist William Buckland named the collection of skeletal parts from Stonesfield. Megalosaurusthe first dinosaur to receive a scientific name.

Buckland did not know this Megalosaurus it was a dinosaur. That’s because the word “dinosaur” wouldn’t be coined for another 18 years. He was working during a time when the sciences of geology and palaeontology were still very young, when the identity and wider significance of fossilized creatures was just beginning to be understood. After all, it wasn’t until 1799 that naturalists finally accepted that extinction was a reality and the Earth’s rocks were full of strange, bygone species. Megalosaurus was such a creature.

Working in the science of comparative anatomy, Buckland was sure that Megalosaurus it was a giant reptile. “Buckland himself recognized that the bones he described as Megalosaurus it must have come from several different individuals of different ages and sizes, but they were all from the same type of animal,” says Oxford University palaeontologist Eliza Howlett. Those pieces represented a creature unlike any known reptile. Although the leg bones indicated a straight-legged, column-like animal like most mammals, the details of the teeth were clearly reptilian. He pictured the animal as having a crocodile-like nature. “Megalosaurus itself was probably an amphibious animal,” he wrote in his paper. Fossils of crocodile teeth and turtle shells found in the same quarry seemed to bolster the idea.

Iguanodon vs. Megalosaurus

An 1863 description of Iguanodon fighting Megalosaurus

Édouard Riou / Public Domain

Two centuries later, we have a very different image Megalosauruswhose full name is Megalosaurus bucklandii in honor of the Oxford geologist. Paleontologists have turned to the original bones, as well as the paper footprints of dinosaurs throughout the history of science, to reintroduce us to Megalosaurus as a bipedal predator that roamed the Jurassic coastline. The dinosaur roamed what is now England about 166 million years ago, a fairly large carnivore for its time at a grown length of more than 20 meters. Trailing on two legs, the carnivore had a long, low skull with curved teeth and likely had short, strong arms tipped with large claws like its later relative Torvosaurus.

However, to date, no one has found anything close to a complete skeleton Megalosaurus. The task of reconstructing the shape of such a dinosaur is like trying to put together a puzzle when you have a pile of pieces from different sets, but no box. In addition to the bones originally described by Buckland, experts attributed them to other fossils from England and elsewhere Megalosaurus because they looked about the same. Moreover, some parts of Megalosaurus have disappeared. American Museum of Natural History paleontologist Roger Benson notes that some Megalosaurus fossils that had been illustrated in the scientific literature, such as a jaw with teeth and the end of a femur that was infamously illustrated in the 1700s with the label “scrotum humanum” for its resemblance to a human body part, are not in no museum. collections and their location is unknown. All this uncertainty has led to different interpretations of it Megalosaurus over time.

Human scrotum

An illustration of a femur that was named “scrotum humanum” for its resemblance to a human body part

Public Domain

Megalosaurus began to change immediately after the animal received a name. In 1842, in a paper that coined the word “dinosaur,” the English anatomist Richard Owen not only identified Megalosaurus like a dinosaur, but reshaped its image into something between a reptile and a mammal. Owen advised the artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins to create a sculpture of his vision of Megalosaurus, as well as descriptions of other dinosaurs, which were located at London’s Sydenham Hill in 1853. The dinosaur was almost mammal-like, standing on all fours with a hump on its back, fitting Owen’s idea that dinosaurs were reptiles advanced unlike today’s lizards and crocodiles. But as new finds in North America were discovered in the 1850s and 1860s, such as carnivores Dryptosauruspaleontologists revisited dinosaurs. Dryptosaurus and other new finds were bipedal, bird-like predators, and Megalosaurus was re-adjusted to fit the new consensus.

Year after year and find by find, Megalosaurus it was in the shade. No complete skeleton appeared to reveal the dinosaur’s full form, and the fact that it was named based on isolated parts made it easy for experts to attribute bones and other isolated traces to it. Megalosaurus. The dinosaur had become what experts often call a “wastebasket taxon,” or a biological category to which researchers assign different specimens because they don’t seem to fit in with anything else. Eventually Megalosaurus it was relegated to accounts of dinosaur history and was not particularly relevant to new studies of how dinosaurs lived and evolved.

However, in the early 21st century, Benson took on the arduous task of sorting through the megalosaur mess and providing the dinosaur with a modern description as a doctoral project. “I’ve always been motivated to understand how different groups of dinosaurs were related to each other,” says Benson, and to do so for Megalosaurus required to go back to the historical record of dinosaurs.

Some bones attributed to him Megalosaurus it turned out to belong to other dinosaurs. In 2009, for example, Benson named the theropod Cruxicheiros from the historic Jurassic bones that were labeled Megalosaurus and overlooked since their discovery. Likewise, Benson discovered a jaw fragment with teeth once thought to belong to him Megalosaurus indeed represented a new dinosaur that he named Duriavenator. ABOUT Megalosaurus Benson himself recognized parts of the jaw, skull, forelimbs, hindlimbs, ribs, and vertebrates that could be safely considered Megalosaurus, providing at least a rough look at the dinosaur skeleton. As incomplete as the skeleton looked, experts could now be sure which remains they really belonged to. Megalosaurus when you compare similar dinosaurs and work out the shape of the dinosaur family tree.

Benson still hopes for more Megalosaurus the fossils are there waiting to be discovered. Each new bone can provide important clues about the animal. “If we were to ask for a wish list of what I would like to know Megalosaurus,” says Oxford University paleontologist Emma Nicholls, “then the answer would be: everything.” like Megalosaurus moved, how big it got and maybe even how the dinosaur reproduced can only be guessed by looking at similar animals. “There are many questions about Megalosaurus that it would be fantastic to have definitive answers,” says Nicholls, and that curiosity is what drives paleontologists to keep going back to the rocks to look for more fossils.

However, experts have shown more interest in the dinosaur than they did for most of the last century. “Scientists would often write this Megalosaurus was a generalized theropod,” Benson says, “but that’s a bit like saying, ‘We don’t know much about it, so let’s just assume it’s an average species.’ The reality is that Megalosaurus was perhaps more unusual than paleontologists expected.

Megalosaurus it wasn’t amphibious, as Buckland thought, but it seems the dinosaur did indeed live along Jurassic waterways. The bones of Megalosaurus, Benson says, come from rocks that formed in coastal habitats where the remains of land plants and animals were washed into shallow water and preserved there, suggesting the dinosaur lived nearby. Considering that Megalosaurus is related to the fish-eating spinosaurs, and spinosaurs themselves are categorized under the broader umbrella of megalosaurs, Megalosaurus it may also have been a fish-eater, representing the type of dinosaur that gave rise to the specialized spinosaurs.

When Megalosaurus was first found, scientists had not imagined that such a creature could have existed. Makeover after makeover, the dinosaur continued to change. Now, 200 years after its name first appeared in print, we’re really just getting to know the first dinosaur, a Jurassic reptile that may have been more unusual than we ever knew. A hundred years from now, maybe we’ll finally be able to imagine Megalosaurus as more than a historical puzzle waiting to be completed.

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