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American Dinosaurs: Who and What Was First

Who gets credit for the first dinosaur in North America depends on one's definition of a description and a fossil

Keith Thomson

These first American dinosaur remains...Click to Enlarge Image

In the year 2006 paleontologists will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the first description of a dinosaur fossil from North America. In March 1856 Joseph Leidy of Philadelphia wrote a brief paper describing and naming four kinds of 75-million-year-old reptilian teeth that had been discovered the previous year in the Cretaceous beds of the Judith River region of Montana. Without any of the media hoopla that accompanies many dinosaur discoveries today, he showed that two of the new reptiles were unquestionably dinosaurs, as judged from comparison with discoveries made in England 30 years before. These were the first American dinosaurs. (Leidy thought that the other two came from "lacertilians"—lizards—but they eventually turned out to be dinosaurs too.) Or perhaps they weren't. Who gets credit for the first North American dinosaur is a matter that depends on what constitutes a description, what counts as a fossil and whether its collector or describer knew what he had, and when.

1824: Early English Dinosaurs

The first ever description of a dinosaur fossil had been by Robert Plot, first director of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford in his Natural History of Oxford-shire of 1677. It was the distal end of a femur and had been found in the village of Cornwell in Oxfordshire. Plot gave an excellent drawing of the bone, but identified it as the thigh bone of a human giant. (Every paleontology student also knows that in 1772, the naturalist Richard Brookes turned Plot's figure upside down and, noting a startling resemblance to male genitalia, gave it its first formal name: Scrotum humanum. Probably because of this notoriety, the original specimen has long since disappeared.)

In 1824 William Buckland at Oxford, describing a suite of fossils from the nearby village of Stonesfield, gave Plot's creature the name Megalosaurus. Enough of it was preserved to show that Megalosaurus was a flesh-eating reptile some 40 feet long. Buckland's publication was the first modern, scientific description of dinosaur remains, even though he, not unreasonably, thought it was a giant lizard; the discrete category "dinosaur" was only defined by the British zoologist Richard Owen, first director of the Natural History Museum in London, in 1842.

Buckland had been obtaining Megalosaurus material from private collectors for at least a decade, and the existence and nature of his fossils were already well known in the scientific community. Unsure what the creature was, Buckland was finally pushed into publishing by the great French zoologist and paleontologist Georges Cuvier, who wanted to include the Oxfordshire monster in a new edition of his grand compendium Recherches sur les Ossemens Fossiles des Quadrupedes (1824).

Because of his vacillations, Buckland almost missed being first into print with a dinosaur (after Plot, that is). The accomplished amateur paleontologist Gideon Mantell had been busy collecting in the Tilgate Forest region of Sussex and had already mentioned his finds in his book Fossils of the South Downs (1822) as "the teeth, vertebrae, bones, and other remains of an animal of the lizard tribe of enormous magnitude." The same fossils were noted in The Gentleman's Magazine in 1823, and Cuvier included a reference to the teeth in his Ossemens Fossiles. But even Cuvier was not sure what Mantell's creature was; he thought the teeth might have been from a fish but "it is not impossible that they also came from a saurian, but a saurian even more extraordinary than all that we now know." Unable to obtain the imprimatur of Cuvier and perhaps due to Buckland's competitiveness, Mantell could not get a formal paper published on his discovery until early 1825. He identified his animal as a plant-eating reptile and named it Iguanodon (because of the resemblance of its teeth to those of a living iguana). Seven years later, Mantell described his second dinosaur: Hylaeosaurus, a somewhat smaller, spikey creature, also a herbivore.

1856: The "First" American Dinosaur

As soon as Joseph Leidy received the Judith River fossils, he naturally compared them directly with the known European forms. From their teeth, the carnivorous form, Deinodon (now Albertosaurus), appeared to be the equivalent of Megalosaurus, and the herbivore Trachodon, with leaf-shaped teeth, was clearly similar to Iguanodon.

Leidy, termed by his biographer Leonard Warren "the last man who knew everything," was a Philadelphia physician who had several careers in parallel: teacher, researcher, anatomist, microscopist, protozoologist, parasitologist (he discovered the nematode causing trichinosis) and—after the urging of the great British geologist Charles Lyell—a paleontologist. His first paper on fossil vertebrates established the existence of ancient horses in North America prior to their extinction sometime in the past two million years. The following year he received the first of a trickle—soon to become a flood—of new discoveries of fossil vertebrates from the "Bad Lands" (mauvaises terres a travailler, as French trappers had put it) of the White River region of what is now South Dakota.

Leidy did not venture out west himself until 1872. For 25 years, he worked on specimens either sent to him by collectors or discovered by the remarkable explorer, surveyor and paleontologist Ferdinand Vandiveer Hayden, who was then right at the beginning of a distinguished and contentious career. Hayden graduated in 1850 from Oberlin College in Ohio and briefly taught school before getting a medical degree at Albany Medical College in Albany, New York. When the brilliant (if cantankerous) geologist James Hall, the state geologist for New York, decided that he wanted to send an expedition out to the White River Bad Lands, he chose two men to go: his assistant Fielding Bradford Meek (a specialist in invertebrates) and Hayden. This trip was the beginning of a longstanding, classic collaboration, out of which came much of our understanding of the stratigraphy and paleontology of the Upper Missouri region.

Hayden's fossils from the 1853 expedition sponsored by Hall found their way to Leidy to describe. From that time, although lacking any prospect of further employment, Hayden was sure of his vocation. In letters to Spencer Baird, assistant secretary of the new Smithsonian Institution, he wrote: "I could endure cheerfully any amount of toil, hardship, and self denial ... to labour in the field as a naturalist. I could live as the wild Indian lives ... without a murmur …. My love for natural History is so great that I hardly feel any disposition for anything else."

 Hayden cast about for sponsors for a second trip. He offered to collect for Leidy and the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, but they were too cautious. Finally, he settled for this second-best choice: two years of collecting for Colonel Alfred Vaughn, the Indian Agent at St. Louis, with the fossils to be split between them. This time Hayden traveled through much of the Upper Missouri country either alone or with men from the American Fur Company. When they saw what he had brought back, Leidy and the Academy turned out to be willing to pay for his fossils because included in that collection were the teeth that he had picked up from near the confluence of the Judith River and the Missouri.

1836: The Footprints of "Giant Birds"

The reason that one might hesitate to record Leidy's fossils as the first American dinosaurs is that, 20 years previously, the Reverend Edward Hitchchock, president of Amherst College, had described dinosaur trackways from the sandstone of the Connecticut River Valley. Such foot prints had first been noticed in 1802 by a boy named Pliny Moody on his father's farm at South Hadley, Massachusetts. In early 1836, two local men found more tracks at a quarry near Montague, Massachusetts, and drew them to the attention of a doctor James Dean and the Reverend Hitchcock; the two later squabbled about who had "first scientifically investigated and described the fossil footmarks of the Connecticut valley."

The trackways that Hitchcock described in a long article in the American Journal of Science in 1836 were of 11 kinds, all made, he concluded, by giant three-toed birds that he termed Ornithichnites. By 1858 Hitchcock, having scoured the pits where the Late Triassic red sandstone was quarried for building and "flagging" stones, had raised the total to 70. These putatively included traces from marsupials, lizards, frogs, chelonians (turtles) and invertebrates, as well as "birds." In so doing, he founded the new science of ichnology—the study of footprints.

The principal argument against recognizing Hitchcock as the first to record North American dinosaur fossils is not that he thought they had been made by birds, but that they were only impressions made by dinosaurs, not bony, bodily remnants of dinosaurs. If a fossil is anything "dug up" (Latin: fossilis), then Hitchcock gets the palm, but only for the first "trace fossils." For real fossil remains, Leidy is the winner.

1787: What Constitutes a Description?

But Leidy is still only the first by default. As early as 1787, the Philadelphia merchant Timothy Matlack and the distinguished physician and anatomist Caspar Wistar read before a meeting of the American Philosophical Society an account of "A large thigh bone found near Woodbury Creek in Glocester County, N.J." The creek runs not far from where, 70 years later, the first associated remains of any dinosaur were excavated and described by Leidy as Hadrosaurus—another herbivore like Iguanodon. The Minutes of the October 5, 1787 meeting of the Society record only the subject of the presentation and the admonition that the authors, with a Dr. John Rodgers, were "to search for the missing part of the skeleton." Unfortunately, no copy of their manuscript exists, nor is there any information about whether further collecting was attempted. Even the specimen itself is missing, but we can be reasonably sure that this femur was the first discovery of an American dinosaur. It would be nice to think that the bone still exists in someone's attic.

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