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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

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.

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