Bag of Bones
Humans have probably been and pondering rocky fossils and tripping over dinosaur bones since prehistory. The ancient Greeks certainly knew of marine fossils as far back as the 6th century BCE, which they used to make (mostly incorrect) theories about the origin of the Earth, and old bones had been falling out of the Earth on beaches and in quarries from England to China for centuries.
Bone-a fide dinosaur fossils weren’t scientifically described until more recently, though. Megalosaurus, the first dinosaur officially named and classified, was confirmed in 1824. But Megalosaurus’ was first written about long before that.
In 1676, natural historian (I don’t know what you call a pre-paleontology paleontologist) Robert Plot published the illustration above, showing a portion of a fossilized femur bone of then-unknown origin that was unearthed in an Oxfordshire limestone quarry. Completely unaware that dinosaurs had ever existed, he chalked the bone up to the remains of Roman war elephant, which are obviously the baddest kind of elephants.
In 1763, though, paleontological history almost took a very juvenile turn. When Richard Brookes reproduced Plot’s original drawing in a natural history collection, its bulbous form…rang a bell, so to speak. So in the caption below it, he added what some historians think was an attempt to provide a proper Linnean genus-species name for the extinct bone donor.
That name? Scrotum humanum.
Luckily (or unluckily?) that name failed to sway scientists of the time, and eventually it became clear that Plot had, unbeknownst to him, drawn the first illustration of a dinosaur fossil: Megalosaurus. Several scientists fought for the superiority of the name Scrotum humanum over Megalosaurus until the 1990’s, but they could never prove that Brookes meant it as a species name rather than just a label.
Ultimately, this tidbit of paleontological history has been (slightly) left to the dark underbelly of paleontological history.
Special thanks to Brian Switek (@Laelaps) for helpful discussion on this post
How wonderful that a Google Doodle is celebrating the 215th birthday of Mary Anning, the self-trained, citizen-scientist fossil hunter who discovered the very first dinosaur skeleton.
I’ll be an iguanodon’s uncle. I have to admit, before today, I never knew much about the story and legacy of Mary Anning. I had heard her name before, but not much else. So I pulled out my rock hammer of curiosity dug a little deeper (pun most definitely intended).
Turns out Anning didn’t actually uncover the first dinosaur skeleton, as is stated in the reblog above. That honor most certainly goes to ancient cultures like the Greeks and Chinese, although they attributed the finds to mythology (thar be dragons!). Richard Brookes described the first dinosaur bone in 1763 (there’s a funny story behind that one, which I’ll tell another time), which was formally described as Megalosaurus in 1824.
But Mary did make some of the most important finds in the history of paleontology. In 1811, she was walking on the beach with her brother when they stumbled across the skull of an ichthyosaur. Luckily for them, British beaches are rocky, desolate places. Over the next few months, Mary dug up the complete skeleton. She was just 12 years old!
But ichthyosaurs aren’t dinosaurs! They are a separate group of prehistoric marine reptiles. So Mary discovered one of the first prehistoric reptile fossils, but not the first dinosaur.
Today’s Google’s doodle tells the story of another of Mary’s famous finds, her 1823 unearthing of the first plesiosaur (also not a dinosaur). She won the Triple Crown of science awesomeness in 1828 when she discovered the first pterosaur, which (you guessed it) is also not a dinosaur. Here’s her original letter (a rather beautiful one if I may say so) describing the 1823 plesiosaur find (via Wikipedia):
Despite these discoveries, Anning was excluded by her gender from scientific societies, and the gentleman-scholars who purchased her fossils often took credit for her work without so much as a mention of her name. She wasn’t completely ignored, as many scholars called upon her expertise to obtain and help classify fossils (including Charles Darwin’s geology teacher), but she suffered financial difficulties for most of her life, and cultural obscurity long after.
It would be hard to think of anyone who made a bigger impact than Mary Anning on the science of digging old bits of animals out of the ground. I’m glad Google is celebrating her today, so that perhaps she can be celebrated a bit more every day. According to Alexa, Google.com gets 720 million unique visitors every day. Imagine how many of them might be inspired, as I was, to learn a little more about the story behind the doodle.
What a win for science :)
Request (sorta) by karamundy: something picturing non-dinosaurs that are often wrongly considered dinosaurs.
There’s probably other stuff I could’ve put in, but that’s basically everything I could think of.
Fun fact: this chart also doubles as a chart depicting what I can and cannot draw well.
I’m just going to put this on a t-shirt so I don’t have to explain it anymore haha.
Useful chart is useful.
Disappointed about the dragons, though.
Sticking plungers to chickens’ butts… you know, for science!
Chickens and other birds are modern relatives of non-avian theropods, a large order of dinosaurs that contains Tyrannosaurus rex, raptors (like Deinonychus), and other primarily bipedal reptilian beasts. They stood mostly on their two rear legs and used massive muscular tails for balance:
They weren’t all big monsters, though. There were also cute little theropods like these guys:
If you need help keeping your dino-groups straight, contrast theropods with sauropods, which include these large, long-necked, four-on-the-floor herbivores:
There’s many more sub-orders of dinosaurs, find out where more of your favorites fall on this Wikipedia page.
Seeing as chickens and their relative are the closest living thing to theropod dinosaurs, a group of biologists thought they’d be a great model to study how T. rex and friends walked. The only problem is that chickens don’t have the long tails that their dino ancestors carried around.
Solution? Stick one on and film ‘em!
The addition of a plunger-butt tail affected the bird’s center of mass and its gait, as well as where it held its bones during standing and walking. You can read more about the research at io9, or check out the original paper (open access) at PLOS One.
Previously: Check out a great TED-Ed video about the evolution of feathers in dinosaurs, narrated by Carl Zimmer.
IT’S CIRCLING MY CAR
THIS IS BY FAR MY NEW FAVORITE VIDEO.
That made me remember this which is one of my NEW FAVORITE VIDEOs once.
This is the most effective reminder EVER that birds are dinosaurs. You ate one for Thanksgiving. HOW AWESOME IS THAT?!
(comic via xkcd)
We’ve still got the ferns, dinosaurs. We’ll always have the ferns.
I voraciously adore this, in all its adorable dino-glory: Dinosaur Song by Lori Henriques.