Dinosaur Discoveries


Tyrell Museum of Paleontology Mosasaurus, whose fossil bones may have inspired legends of dragons. See more dinosaur images.
Tyrell Museum of Paleontology

Dinosaur bones have been firing people's imaginations for hundreds of years. People in the Middle Ages found huge bones that were probably fossils of dinosaurs and large aquatic reptiles, such as plesiosaurs and mosasaurs. These may have inspired the legends of dragons and giants. The oldest record of possible fossil dinosaur bones is in a Chinese book written between 265 and 317 A.D. It mentions "dragon bones" found at Wucheng, in Sichuan Province. This area has produced many dinosaur bones.

Since those first discoveries, scientists have been trying to complete the picture of dinosaurs and their lives. All we have left of these amazing creatures are their fossil bones. Paleontologists continue their search to find all they can; each new fossil bone reveals a little more about dinosaurs. And each new dinosaur discovered tells us not only about that dinosaur but also about its place in evolution.

The study of dinosaur fossils has come a long way from the first scientific description when scientists thought a Megalosaurus thigh bone belonged to a very large man. Now, scientists can tell what type of diet an animal ate, when it lived, even sometimes how it raised its young. Paleontologists are indebted to the work of the early dinosaur hunters. Their dedication laid the groundwork for today's research.

Early Dinosaur Discoveries

Teeth of a Megalosaurus, from a book by William Buckland
Teeth of a Megalosaurus, from a book by William Buckland
Ann Ronan Picture Library

In 1677, Robert Plot, an Oxford professor, described the bottom portion of a huge dinosaur thigh bone of Megalosaurus in The Natural History of Oxfordshire, though he thought it was from a giant human. Almost 90 years later, this bone was illustrated in an academic paper on British natural history.

Dinosaur trackways, or fossilized footprints, are more common than dinosaur bones and there are many in the Connecticut Valley in New England. In the early 1800s, a farm boy named Pliny Moody described birdlike tracks of many shapes and sizes in a rock slab in South Hadley, Massachusetts. He called them traces of "Noah's raven." Later, the Reverend Edward Hitchcock wrote about these and other tracks. He thought they were the footprints of giant prehistoric birds.

Dinosaur Discoveries in 19th Century England

William Buckland, ready to explore a glacier
William Buckland, ready to explore a glacier
Ann Ronan Picture Library

Fossil dinosaur bones and teeth continued to turn up in England. The first dinosaur name was Megalosaurus, meaning "giant lizard." In 1824, William Buckland, a clergyman, published the first scientific dinosaur account. He described a tooth-filled lower jaw and other Megalosaurus specimens.

British scientists knew that dinosaurs were reptiles, though they considered them large, overgrown lizards. In a fossil-hunting expedition in the British countryside in 1822, Mary Ann Woodhouse Mantell found fossil teeth that showed dinosaurs were different from other reptiles. She gave them to her husband, a physician. A worker at the Hunterian Museum in London noticed their resemblance to an iguana's teeth, though they were much larger. French comparative anatomist Baron Georges Cuvier agreed that they were from a giant plant-eating reptile. In 1825, Dr. Mantell described the teeth and other bones he had found as a new reptilian genus, Iguanodon. He later named his second dinosaur, Hylaeosaurus, in 1833.

Sir Richard Owen, England's greatest anatomist, studied Buckland's and Mantell's fossils. In 1841, he created the name Dinosauria, meaning "terrible lizard." This was a separate "tribe or sub-order" of reptiles. Owen also supervised the construction in 1854 of huge, life-size models of Megalosaurus, Iguanodon, Hylaeosaurus, and other fossil reptiles. These models were built by Waterhouse Hawkins. They still stand at Crystal Palace Park in Sydenham as a monument to the early days of dinosaur research in England.

Cartoon of Gideon Mantell that appeared in 1839
Cartoon of Gideon Mantell that appeared in 1839
Ann Ronan Picture Library

Once the idea of dinosaurs became established, more and more dinosaur fossils were recognized. In the following decades, European paleontologists Thomas Henry Huxley, Richard Lydekker, H.-E, Sauvage, Philippe Matheron, A. G. Melville, Ludwig Rutimeyer, and Hermann von Meyer described many new dinosaur species. Unfortunately, they often had little to work with-mostly pieces of bones and teeth. Scientists are still sorting out the tangle of species and genera.

Harry Govier Seeley, an amateur paleontologist and professor, made a major contribution to dinosaur classification in 1887. He concluded that there were two groups of dinosaurs: the saurischians, with a lizardlike pelvis; and the ornithischians, with a birdlike pelvis. With a few changes, scientists still use this same classification system today.

The Great American Dinosaur Rush

Cartoon of Marsh from Punch, 1890
Cartoon of Marsh from Punch, 1890
Ann Ronan Picture Library

In 1855, Ferdinand Vandiveer Hayden, a surveyor for the U.S. Geological Survey, took fossil teeth and other remains that he had found along the Judith River in Montana to Philadelphia. A year later, Joseph Leidy published his work on Troodon, Palaeoscincus, Trachodon, Thespesius, and Deinodon. He did not consider all of them to be dinosaurs.

Two years later, William Parker Foulke made an amazing discovery while vacationing in Haddonfield, New Jersey. John E. Hopkins had found some large vertebrae on his property two decades before. Souvenir hunters had carried off many of the bones, but Foulke and his workers found the rest of the skeleton. Leidy described the headless specimen as a new dinosaur, Hadrosaurus foulkii. It was the first dinosaur skeleton found in North America and one of the best found anywhere up to that time.

In the late 1860s, two scientists took the spotlight. Their rivalry has become legend. Othniel Charles Marsh, nephew of multimillionaire George Peabody, was a Yale University graduate. He persuaded his uncle to finance the Peabody Museum at Yale, which supported his field work.

Edward Drinker Cope grew up a Quaker in Philadelphia. He was a child prodigy, who, by age 18, had published his first scientific paper. Cope was wealthy and he later inherited a small fortune that allowed him to pursue his studies.

Cope and Marsh's rivalry grew out of their ambition to be the greatest paleontologist. By 1866, Cope had described his first dinosaur, the meat-eating Laelaps aquilunguis. Marsh had not yet described a dinosaur. He pointed out errors in Cope's 1868 description of the aquatic reptile from Kansas, Elasmosaurus. Embarrassed, Cope tried to buy all the copies of his article, but Marsh kept several copies. Cope never forgot the insult.

Schoolmaster Arthur Lakes came across fossil bones in Morrison, Colorado, in 1877. He sent fossils to both Marsh and Cope. Marsh immediately secured rights and began digging. Fortunately for Cope, another schoolmaster found bigger bones near Cañon City, Colorado. Later that summer, two employees of the Union Pacific Railroad located some well-preserved bones at Como Bluff, Wyoming. Marsh sent his field man to supervise the excavation. These three locations fostered a revolution in our understanding of dinosaurs.

Marsh's and Cope's ambition to be the first to describe the largest and most spectacular fossils started the "dinosaur rush" that lasted for a decade. They hired teams of men to find new locations, to dig for dinosaurs, and to send bones to New Haven and Philadelphia for description. Each scrambled to be the first in print with new dinosaurs. As a result, many dinosaurs received two or more names. For example, Marsh described Apatosaurus in 1877 and Brontosaurus in 1879. Because they are the same animal, the older name has priority.

Marsh described Apatosaurus in 1877
Marsh described Apatosaurus in 1877
Canadian Museum of Nature

Cope died in 1897, and Marsh in 1899. After the smoke cleared, Marsh had described more dinosaurs than Cope. Cope's interests in paleontology were wider than Marsh's, though, and he made the greater contribution. The techniques of prospecting, recording, excavating, and shipping large fossils are perhaps the two scientists' greatest legacy.

Henry Fairfield Osborn had just graduated from Princeton University when news of Marsh's expeditions inspired him to organize an expedition to Wyoming. He gained little but experience. Later he worked with Cope, where he picked up knowledge of vertebrate anatomy and paleontology. Osborn then worked at the American Museum of Natural History.

The size and appearance of dinosaurs impressed Osborn. He realized that they also fascinated the general public. Using his connections, he secured funding to find, prepare, and display dinosaur skeletons. By 1940, the American Museum had the greatest collection of dinosaurs on display.

As the 19th century was ending, Andrew Carnegie endowed a large natural history museum in Pittsburgh. After reading about the American Museum's discoveries, he instructed William J. Holland, the museum director, to find dinosaurs to exhibit. Museum employees Jacob Wortman and Arthur S. Coggeshall found a huge partial dinosaur skeleton at Sheep Creek, Wyoming. They unearthed another of the same species nearby. Together with bones from related dinosaurs, workers made the two into a spectacular 84-foot-long mounted skeleton that Holland named Diplodocus carnegii.

Earl Douglass went to work for the Carnegie Museum. Prospecting in the Uinta Basin near Vernal, Utah, in 1908, he and Holland found a Diplodocus thigh bone. Douglass returned the following year and discovered the giant skeleton (over 70 feet long) that Holland named Apatosaurus louisae, in honor of Carnegie's wife. That skeleton proved to be the "tip of the iceberg" of dinosaur fossils. With Carnegie's support, Douglass started a large excavation that produced thousands of dinosaur bones. President Woodrow Wilson designated the quarry Dinosaur National Monument in 1915, and excavations continue even today.

Dinosaur Discoveries in Canada

Albertosaurus with a juvenile
Albertosaurus with a juvenile
Ann Ronan Picture Library

About the time Douglass was collecting dinosaurs for the Carnegie Museum, western Canada opened to dinosaur prospectors. In the early 1870s, George Mercer Dawson had found dinosaur bones in Saskatchewan while surveying the Canada-United States boundary. In 1884, Dawson's assistant, George B. Tyrrell, unearthed a large partial skull of a meat-eating dinosaur, which was later named Albertosaurus sarcophagus, in Alberta.

Geologist Thomas Chesmer Weston boated along the Red Deer River to scan the shore for dinosaur fossils. By the turn of the century, Canadian paleontologist Lawrence M. Lambe had collected many dinosaur specimens using the same technique. A few years later, in 1910, Barnum Brown specially outfitted a barge and continued Weston's and Lambe's work.

Charles Hazelius Sternberg's childhood interest in fossil plants led to a job as a fossil collector for Cope. The Canadian Geological Survey hired Sternberg in 1912 to find dinosaur skeletons and send them to Ottawa. He and his sons George, Charles, and Levi competed with Brown in Alberta for several years. Among the many fossils they found were two duckbilled dinosaur "mummies" preserved with extensive skin impressions. The wealth of specimens discovered by Brown and the Sternbergs showed the amazing diversity of crests, frills, and horns that had arisen among the Late Cretaceous dinosaurs.

Workers have found more dinosaur specimens in southern Alberta than anyplace else in the world. The Alberta government protected this resource by designating a 40-square-mile area along the Red Deer River as Dinosaur Provincial Park.

Dinosaur Discoveries in Europe

Excavating fossils in the great bone cave in Maestricht, Holland
Excavating fossils in the great bone cave in Maestricht, Holland
Ann Ronan Picture Library

In 1878, the feud between Cope and Marsh was getting into full swing. Meanwhile, coal miners at Bernissart, Belgium, discovered well-preserved dinosaur skeletons over a thousand feet beneath the ground. Soon the mining company Charbonnage de Bernissart diverted its resources to excavating the skeletons, a task that took several years.

Louis Dollo devoted his life to preparing, mounting, and studying these skeletons, making Iguanodon the best-known European dinosaur. Dollo's work inspired younger European paleontologists, who carried the study of dinosaurs forward.

One colorful character was Franz Baron Nopcsa von Felsö-Szilvás, a Transylvanian nobleman. He became intrigued with dinosaurs when his sister chanced upon some bones on her property in what is now Hungary. He published a scientific description of the new dinosaur in 1899, as a first-year student at the University of Vienna.

Much of Nopcsa's work was to describe the dinosaurs of central Europe, which we know from many pieces of fossils. He also speculated-sometimes outlandishly-about dinosaur origins, classification, and lifestyle. Other scientists quickly discredited his idea that the crested duckbilled dinosaurs were males and the flat-headed ones females. Scientists today accept a modern version of his hypothesis: that the sizes and shapes of the crests of duckbilled dinosaurs suggest the animal's maturity.

Europe's premier vertebrate paleontologist at that time was Friedrich Freiherr von Huene. Like Nopcsa, Huene was a nobleman-with the time and means to pursue a university education. At the University of Tübingen, he began his long career with a study of the Triassic dinosaurs of Germany. When workers found dinosaur bones at Trossingen, Huene investigated. The excavations uncovered an enormous bed of Plateosaurus bones. This animal lived during the Late Triassic.

Opening Asia to Paleontology

These duckbilled dinosaurs, named Saurolophus, enjoy the shade and water on a warm Late Cretaceous day.
These duckbilled dinosaurs, named Saurolophus, enjoy the shade and water on a warm Late Cretaceous day.
Canadian Museum of Nature

The Canadian dinosaur rush was ending. Meanwhile, Henry Fairfield Osborn decided the place to look for fossil mammals and the origins of the human race was in the Gobi Desert. The American Museum of Natural History sent expeditions led by Roy Chapman Andrews and Walter Granger to the Gobi. They first set out in 1922, but they did not find human remains. Instead, the prospectors found ancient mammal bones, and in one place, dinosaur bones. Heartened by these discoveries, the expedition returned in 1923. At Shabarakh Usu (now called Bayn Dzak), they identified the first dinosaur eggs ever found, many still arranged in nests. Workers also unearthed skeletons of Protoceratops andrewsi, the dinosaur that laid the eggs. There were skeletons from hatchling to adult. They found many other new dinosaurs on that and later expeditions to the Gobi.

During the 1930s, political turmoil in China prevented further exploration of the Gobi Desert. After World War II, paleontologists from the Soviet Union, led by Ivan Antonovich Efremov, found many fossils in the Nemegt Basin. The huge meat-eater Tarbosaurus bataar and the giant plant-eater Saurolophus angustirostris were two new finds. These animals were closely related to North American dinosaurs Tyrannosaurus rex and Saurolophus osborni. This suggests that during the Late Cretaceous, a strip of land joined western North America and eastern Asia. There also could have been a group of islands between the two continents. Dinosaurs and other animals may have been able to roam between these areas.

In 1902, a Russian colonel named Manakin found the first dinosaurs from China along the Chinese bank of the Amur River (this river forms part of the boundary between Russia and China). In 1915, A. N. Kryshtofovitch and V. P. Renngarten led expeditions to the region. The first named dinosaur from China, Mandschurosaurus amurensis, was mounted in Leningrad.

Meanwhile, American paleontologist G. D. Louderback had unearthed dinosaur remains in the Sichuan Basin of southwestern China in 1913. That same year, missionary R. Mertens found a large partial skeleton in the Shandong Province. Otto Zdansky and Tan Xichou excavated the site in 1922. The well-preserved remains of a long-necked plant-eating dinosaur, Euhelopus zdanskyi, went to the University of Uppsala, Sweden, for examination.

China and Sweden sponsored the Sino-Swedish Northwest China Expeditions of 1927-31, led by Swedish geographer Sven Hedin and Chinese geologist F. Yuan. In 1953, Birger Bohlin wrote about some of the dinosaurs discovered during those expeditions, though many were only fragmentary remains.

China's foremost paleontologist from the 1930s until his death in 1979, Young Chung Chien studied vertebrate paleontology under Huene in Germany. On returning to China in 1928, he worked for the Geological Survey of China, starting excavations for fossil reptiles in several places. Young wrote up and supervised the mounting of Lufengosaurus, discovered in Yunnan Province at Lufeng. It was the first mounted dinosaur skeleton displayed in China. After the Chinese revolution, Young founded the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology. This institute supported the excavation and study of many dinosaurs and other fossils. It was almost entirely through the work of Young and his students that China became one of the centers of dinosaur research.

Dinosaurs of Africa

W. B. Sattler found the most interesting African dinosaurs in 1907 near Tendaguru Hill, Tanzania (in what was then German East Africa). Berlin paleontologists Werner Janensch and Edwin Hennig led an expedition to the site. From 1909 to 1912, several hundred untrained native workers toiled in the hot, humid climate to excavate the deep bone-pits. They crated and hand-carried thousands of bones, some weighing hundreds of pounds, cross-country to the port of Lindi for shipment to Berlin.

One spectacular result was the 40-foot-tall skeleton of Brachiosaurus brancai, which now stands in the East Berlin Natural History Museum. Assembled from the bones of several animals, it is the tallest mounted dinosaur skeleton in the world. Also found were skeletons of the spiny-plated dinosaur Kentrosaurus and remains of the huge plant-eaters Barosaurus africanus and Dicraeosaurus. The Tendaguru finds resembled the dinosaurs discovered in the western United States. This proved that the same kinds of dinosaurs (though not the same species) lived throughout the world during the Late Jurassic.

After World War I, the English continued the work at Tendaguru. By 1929, work at Tendaguru ceased. Recently, paleontologists have returned to the region to continue the search for dinosaurs.

In the autumn of 1912, word of a find of large dinosaur bones reached Ernst Freiherr Stromer von Reichenbach at the University of Munich. R. Markgraf had discovered the bones at the Baharia Oasis in Egypt. The bones belonged to a new meat-eating dinosaur, Spinosaurus, which had a six-foot-high sail on its back. Later surveys of the region uncovered more dinosaur bones. World War I ended German field work in Egypt.

In the early 1930s, Stromer wrote up three Egyptian dinosaurs: Aegyptosaurus, a giant plant-eater; Bahariasaurus, a giant meat-eater rivaling Tyrannosaurus; and Carcharodontosaurus, a smaller carnivore. Unfortunately, a bombing raid during World War II destroyed Stromer's specimens, including some that had not been described.

From the late 19th century until the 1950s, French paleontologists studied the dinosaurs of Morocco, Algeria, and Madagascar. In 1896, Charles Déperet had described a long-necked herbivore, Lapparentosaurus, and a large carnivore, Majungasaurus, from Madagascar. After World War II, Albert F. de Lapparent and Réné Lavocat described several new dinosaurs from Morocco and the Sahara. The most curious was Rebbachisaurus, a huge plant-eater with vertebrae nearly five feet tall. The animal may have resembled Apatosaurus with a tall ridge or sail along its back.

Dinosaurs from South America, India, and Australia

Huene's Trossingen studies brought him worldwide recognition and stimulated interest in dinosaurs everywhere, including South America. Commandante Buratovich at Neuquén was the first to discover dinosaurs in Argentina in 1882. The Museum of La Plata, which stored many of the fossils, invited Huene to work on the collection.

In 1936, an expedition sponsored by the Museum of Comparative Zoology of Harvard University went to the Santa Maria Formation of Rio Grande do Sul. Headed by Llewellyn Ivor Price and Theodore E. White, the prospectors brought back a large collection of fossils that included the partial skeleton of Staurikosaurus pricei. It was described by Edwin Colbert in 1970. Scientists consider this the oldest known "true" dinosaur.

Price remained in Brazil, and his work inspired a generation of native South American paleontologists. Among these was Osvaldo A. Reig of the Institut Lillo of Tucuman in Argentina. Reig worked in the Ischigualasto Valley in the San Juan Province, where goat farmer Victorino Herrera found dinosaur remains slightly younger than Staurikosaurus. The Talampaya-Ischigualasto region is a remote, forbidding desert in central Argentina. In 1958, Alfred Sherwood Romer and Bryan Patterson uncovered reptile fossils from a period when dinosaurs were establishing themselves. In 1963, Reig described the primitive dinosaurs Herrerasaurus and Ischisaurus, which opened a hidden chapter of dinosaur evolution.

In 1958, Sohan Lall Jain, Tapan K. Roy-Chowdhury, and Pamela Lamplugh Robinson led an expedition in India. They located dinosaur bones near where the River Pranhita joins the River Godavari. Known as the Kota Formation, the rocks are layers of limestone, "fossilized" lake remains nearly 200 million years old. A rich bone bed excavated in 1961 yielded bones of several specimens of a new large, long-necked plant-eater, Barapasaurus tagorei. Also found was Kotasaurus yamanpalliensis, another plant-eater.

Although Australia has yielded other fascinating reptile fossils, the dinosaur record remains fragmentary. The first dinosaur remains discovered in Australia were a claw and some leg bones. In 1891, Seeley described a new sheep-size dinosaur, Agrosaurus macgillivrayi, a small relative of Plateosaurus.

Workers found more dinosaur fossil pieces later at Cape Paterson in Victoria and at Lightning Ridge in Queensland. In 1932, Huene wrote up the Lightning Ridge specimens as three new dinosaurs: Rapator, Walgettosuchus, and Fulgurotherium.

In the late 1920s, two partial skeletons of large, long-necked plant-eating dinosaurs turned up. Paleontologist Heber A. Longman named them Rhoetosaurus and Austrosaurus.