Dinosaur  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Dinosaurs are a diverse group of animals of the clade Dinosauria. They first appeared during the Triassic period, 231.4 million years ago, and were the dominant terrestrial vertebrates for 135 million years, from the beginning of the Jurassic (about 201 million years ago) until the end of the Cretaceous (66 million years ago), when the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event led to the extinction of most dinosaur groups at the close of the Mesozoic Era.

In 1842, Richard Owen invents the word Dinosauria to classify Megalosaurus, Iguanodon, and Hylaeosaurus.

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Cultural depictions

By human standards, dinosaurs were creatures of fantastic appearance and often enormous size. As such, they have captured the public imagination and become an enduring part of human culture. Only three decades after the first scientific descriptions of dinosaur remains, the famous dinosaur sculptures were erected in Crystal Palace Park in London. These sculptures excited the public so strongly that smaller replicas were sold, one of the first examples of tie-in merchandising. Since Crystal Palace, dinosaur exhibitions have opened at parks and museums around the world, both catering to, and reinforcing, the public interest. Dinosaur popularity has long had a reciprocal effect on dinosaur science, as well. The competition between museums for public attention led directly to the Bone Wars waged between Marsh and Cope, each striving to return with more spectacular fossil remains than the other, and the resulting contribution to dinosaur science was enormous.

Dinosaurs hold an integral place in modern culture. The word "dinosaur" itself has entered the English lexicon as an expression describing anything that is impractically large, slow-moving, or obsolete, bound for extinction. The public preoccupation with dinosaurs led to their inevitable entrance into worldwide popular culture. Beginning with a passing mention of Megalosaurus in the first paragraph of Charles Dickens' Bleak House in 1852, dinosaurs have been featured in a broad array of fictional works. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 1912 book The Lost World, the iconic 1933 film King Kong, the 1954 introduction of Godzilla and its many subsequent sequels, the best-selling 1990 novel Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton and its 1993 film version, briefly the highest-grossing film of all time, are just a few prominent examples of the long tradition of dinosaurs in fiction. Non-fiction authors, including some prominent paleontologists, have also sought to take advantage of dinosaur popularity, especially among children, to educate readers about dinosaurs in particular and science in general. Dinosaurs are ubiquitous in advertising, with numerous companies seeking to utilize dinosaurs to sell their own products or to characterize their rivals as slow-moving or obsolete.

History of study

Dinosaur fossils have been known for millennia, although their true nature was not recognized. The Chinese, whose modern word for dinosaur is konglong (恐龍, or "terrible dragon"), considered them to be dragon bones and documented them as such. For example, Hua Yang Guo Zhi, a book written by Chang Qu during the Western Jin Dynasty (265-316), reported the discovery of dragon bones at Wucheng in Sichuan Province. Villagers in central China have long unearthed fossilized "dragon bones" for use in traditional medicines, a practice that continues today. In Europe, dinosaur fossils were generally believed to be the remains of giants and other biblical creatures.

Scholarly descriptions of what would now be recognized as dinosaur bones first appeared in the late 17th century in England. Part of a bone, now known to have been the femur of a Megalosaurus, was recovered from a limestone quarry at Cornwell near Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, England, in 1676. The fragment was sent to Robert Plot, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford and first curator of the Ashmolean Museum, who published a description in his Natural History of Oxfordshire in 1677. He correctly identified the bone as the lower extremity of the femur of a large animal, and recognized that it was too large to belong to any known species. He therefore concluded it to be the thigh bone of a giant human similar to those mentioned in the Bible. In 1699, Edward Lhuyd, a friend of Sir Isaac Newton, was responsible for the first published scientific treatment of what would now be recognized as a dinosaur when he described and named a sauropod tooth, "Rutellum implicatum", that had been found in Caswell, near Witney, Oxfordshire.

Between 1815 and 1824, the Rev William Buckland, a professor of geology at Oxford University, collected more fossilized bones of Megalosaurus and became the first person to describe a dinosaur in a scientific journal. The second dinosaur genus to be identified, Iguanodon, was discovered in 1822 by Mary Ann Mantell – the wife of English geologist Gideon Mantell. Gideon Mantell recognized similarities between his fossils and the bones of modern iguanas. He published his findings in 1825.

The study of these "great fossil lizards" soon became of great interest to European and American scientists, and in 1842 the English paleontologist Richard Owen coined the term "dinosaur". He recognized that the remains that had been found so far, Iguanodon, Megalosaurus and Hylaeosaurus, shared a number of distinctive features, and so decided to present them as a distinct taxonomic group. With the backing of Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the husband of Queen Victoria, Owen established the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, London, to display the national collection of dinosaur fossils and other biological and geological exhibits.

In 1858, the first known American dinosaur was discovered, in marl pits in the small town of Haddonfield, New Jersey (although fossils had been found before, their nature had not been correctly discerned). The creature was named Hadrosaurus foulkii. It was an extremely important find: Hadrosaurus was one of the first nearly complete dinosaur skeletons found (the first was in 1834, in Maidstone, Kent, England), and it was clearly a bipedal creature. This was a revolutionary discovery as, until that point, most scientists had believed dinosaurs walked on four feet, like other lizards. Foulke's discoveries sparked a wave of dinosaur mania in the United States.

Dinosaur mania was exemplified by the fierce rivalry between Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, both of whom raced to be the first to find new dinosaurs in what came to be known as the Bone Wars. The feud probably originated when Marsh publicly pointed out that Cope's reconstruction of an Elasmosaurus skeleton was flawed: Cope had inadvertently placed the plesiosaur's head at what should have been the animal's tail end. The fight between the two scientists lasted for over 30 years, ending in 1897 when Cope died after spending his entire fortune on the dinosaur hunt. Marsh 'won' the contest primarily because he was better funded through a relationship with the US Geological Survey. Unfortunately, many valuable dinosaur specimens were damaged or destroyed due to the pair's rough methods: for example, their diggers often used dynamite to unearth bones (a method modern paleontologists would find appalling). Despite their unrefined methods, the contributions of Cope and Marsh to paleontology were vast: Marsh unearthed 86 new species of dinosaur and Cope discovered 56, a total of 142 new species. Cope's collection is now at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, while Marsh's is on display at the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University.

After 1897, the search for dinosaur fossils extended to every continent, including Antarctica. The first Antarctic dinosaur to be discovered, the ankylosaurid Antarctopelta oliveroi, was found on James Ross Island in 1986, although it was 1994 before an Antarctic species, the theropod Cryolophosaurus ellioti, was formally named and described in a scientific journal.

Current dinosaur "hot spots" include southern South America (especially Argentina) and China. China in particular has produced many exceptional feathered dinosaur specimens due to the unique geology of its dinosaur beds, as well as an ancient arid climate particularly conducive to fossilization.

See also

Namesakes




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