Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Charlotte from Chagrin Falls, OH. Charlotte Wonders, “Who discovered the first dinosaur bone?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Charlotte!
Are you afraid of snakes? What about lizards and other reptiles? It's understandable to be cautious around such creatures if you encounter them in the wild. But what if you had bigger and fiercer creatures to worry about?
Could you imagine hiking in the wild during the time of the dinosaurs? Instead of a snake or a lizard, you'd have to watch out for huge beasts with long teeth and sharp claws. Some of them could even fly!
Thanks to modern science, we know a lot about the dinosaurs that used to roam Earth. How do scientists know so much? It's not like they can observe them in the wild like they do with modern animals. Instead, they rely upon what dinosaurs left behind. No, not their diaries! Scientists study their fossilized bones and, sometimes, other bodily material .
No one knows when the first dinosaur bone was found. Ancient peoples most likely uncovered fossils of dinosaur bones from time to time, but they had no idea what they had found. Ancient Chinese writings from over 2,000 years ago reference "dragon" bones, which many experts today believe had to be dinosaur fossils.
Even early scientists weren't sure about the fossils they found. For example, in 1676, Reverend Robert Plot, a curator of an English museum, discovered a large thigh bone in England. He believed it belonged to ancient species of human "giants."
Megalosaurus is believed to be the first dinosaur ever described scientifically. British fossil hunter William Buckland found some fossils in 1819, and he eventually described them and named them in 1824. Like scientists before him, Buckland thought the fossils belonged to an ancient, larger version of a modern reptile.
As of that time, the word "dinosaur" still had not been invented yet, and dinosaurs hadn't yet been recognized as distinct creatures that were significantly different than modern reptiles. All that changed when British scientist Richard Owen came along.
In late 1841 or early 1842, Owen viewed the fossil collection of William Devonshire Saull. He was intrigued by a fossilized chunk of spine, which was thought to belong to an ancient reptile similar to an iguana that had been called "Iguanodon."
Owen began comparing the fossils he saw and, within a few months, came to two critical conclusions: (1) that the fossils were from similar creatures; and (2) these were creatures unlike anything on Earth today. He coined the term "dinosaurs," which means "terrible lizards."
Although the study of dinosaurs really got its start in 1842, new evidence to study was hard to come by until the late 1800s. At that time, Othniel Marsh and Edward Cope, two American scientists who were both wealthy and competitive, formed research teams and headed for the Rocky Mountains.
Their competing teams unearthed tons of bones from several different sites. Known as the Bone Wars, their rivalry was responsible for the discovery of 136 new species of dinosaurs. As the 1900s began, many scientists and prestigious institutions all over the world were inspired by the Bone Wars to study dinosaurs.