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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

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.

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