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Ask A Scientist

What was the first dinosaur found?

Asked by: Josh Marris
School: Chenango Valley High School
Grade: 9
Teacher: Mr. Breed
Hobbies/Interests: Playing basketball and swimming
Career Interest: Banker or auto mechanic

Answer from Karl Wilson

Professor of Biology, Binghamton University

Research area:  Biochemistry, degradation of proteins in plants; seed germination
Ph.D. school: University at Buffalo
Family: wife (also a faculty member at BU), daughter (graduate student at Yale)
Interests/hobbies:  Paleontology, photography, cooking
Web page address:  http://bingweb.binghamton.edu/~kwilson/home.htm
 

That’s an interesting question Josh – the answer really depends upon what you mean by “found.”  Undoubtedly dinosaur bones have been found by people for hundreds and probably thousands of years.  The Chinese have for at least several hundred years used fossil bones, including dinosaur bones, in traditional medicine, thinking they were dragon bones with healing properties.  It also seems likely that Native Americans in the western United States must have found dinosaur bones exposed by erosion well before the coming of Columbus to the New World. If you mean what was the first dinosaur found and described scientifically, that honor would go to the carnivorous dinosaur Megalosaurus (from the Greek roots megalo and sauros - "big lizard").  This dinosaur lived in the Middle Jurassic Period, about 165 million years ago.    William Buckland, a British clergyman, found some bones of this dinosaur in 1819, and named them Megalosaurus in 1824.    About the same time, Mary Mantell found the teeth and some bones of an herbivorous dinosaur in Sussex, England.  Her husband Gideon Mantell later published a description of these as the dinosaur Igaunodon.   It is interesting to note that “dinosaur”, meaning "terrible lizard", was not coined until 1842 by the British paleontologist Richard Owen. William Parker Foulke found the first nearly complete dinosaur skeleton in 1858 in a marl pit at Haddonfield, New Jersey.  This herbivorous dinosaur was named Hadrosaurus foulkii by the American paleontologist Joseph Leidy.  Here the "genus" name "Hadrosaurus" comes from two Greek words hadros and sauros meaning "sturdy lizard", while the species name "foulkii" is in honor of the dinosaur’s discoverer, Foulke).  This is one of the "duckbill" dinosaurs, so named because of the front of the skull is flat and broad like a duck's bill.  It lived in the late Cretaceous Period, approximately 80 million years ago. In 1868 the Haddonfield dinosaur was mounted at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, and from 1868 to 1983 it was the first and only mounted dinosaur skeleton on public display in the world.  Cast of the Haddonfield dinosaur skeleton were later exhibited in Scotland and at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.  You can read more about Haddonfield hadrosaur on the web at: http://www.levins.com/dinosaur.shtml and see a sculpture depicting the dinosaur in downtown Haddonfield at: http://www.hadrosaurus.com/.  Hadrosaurus foulkii was named the official state fossil of New Jersey in 1991.  The Smithsonian Institution has an interesting webpage on preparing and mounting dinosaur skeletons at: http://www.mnh.si.edu/highlight/triceratops/

Last Updated: 9/18/13