In 1842, a British “gentleman geologist” named Mary Ann Mantell discovered a fossil near her home in Lewes, a town in East Sussex on England’s south coast.
The fossil was an unusual spiny leaf from a plant. But there were already three different types of plant fossils known to science at that time.
What made this particular discovery so important was that the leaf had bones that looked very much like those used by living lizards for jaw support and attachment, a clue to what the plant was related to.
Mantell’s discovery was the first of many that led to the conclusion that all dinosaurs and birds descend from a group of reptiles called archosaurs, or “ruling lizards.”
Here are some points about the story of dinosaurs-
1. How were early dinosaurs discovered?
Skeleton of Megalosaurus , the first dinosaur discovered in England, 1824. Specimen in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.
The word “dinosaur” was invented by the famous English scientist Richard Owen in 1842. It combines two Greek words, dinos meaning “terrible” and sauros meaning “lizard” to refer to an extinct type of huge reptile with a tail like a crocodile.
But dinosaurs really began to come into focus with discoveries made in England at the beginning of the 1800s.
The first dinosaur fossils were teeth which had been found by local farmers digging for rocks to build roads or walls.
2. Who discovered the first dinosaur fossils?
Amongst the first to find dinosaur fossils in England was a thirty year old paleontologist named Mary Ann Mantell, who lived in Lewes, near Brighton.
She was the daughter of a clergyman, and was sent to school at age ten. After she left school she returned home and studied botany and geology with her father and at the same time, learned about natural history from her brother, who was a naturalist. Her interest in fossils led her to travel over 300 miles by horseback to visit quarries and fossil diggings in Wales and Sussex.
The first dinosaur fossils in England were found in the rocks of this county. The beast may have been a dinosaur or it may have been a crocodile.
Mantell kept these fossils in her home for over 50 years, and when she died in 1905, they were donated to the Ashworth Museum, where they are still on display today.
3. How old were the oldest dinosaurs?
The oldest dinosaur known was discovered by Mary Ann Mantell in 1842 when she was 43 years old a small plant-eating quadruped with a leaf roof over its skull and teeth like those of a crocodile.
It was a member of a group of reptiles called the dinosauria or “terrible lizards.” This first dinosaur was named Megalosaurus, from the Greek for “big lizard.”
4. Where was the first dinosaur found?
The first dinosaurs were discovered in England as well as places as far away as Egypt and Germany. In 1770, a fossil tail was found in Germany belonging to a large quadruped with a long tail and four toes on each foot.
In 1822, an English traveler saw bones from what looked like a huge animal in the limestone near a town called Gisa in Egypt.
In 1823, when the rock was broken open, its contents included teeth and vertebrae which were sent to England. They were like those of a lizard. But they would be named after the place in which they were found, Gisborosaurus “the lizard from Gisa.”
5. What made the discovery of dinosaurs important?
It was not until someone found several dinosaur bones together that scientists realized dinosaurs were very different from other reptiles.
In 1824, the great French naturalist, Georges Cuvier who had discovered some of the first mastodon bones in 1796—found some parts of an enormous animal near Oxford.
A builder named James Parkinson found more bones in a pit he was digging on his land at Cranborne Chase. The new owner of the quarry near Parkinson’s pit was a young married couple, the Daresburys.
When new fossils were found, they passed them on to their neighbor Henry Fricke who showed them to his friend William Buckland—a professor of geology at Oxford University.
It took several years to put all these fossils together and work out what kind of animal they belonged to. In 1824, when an old arm bone and a tail were found in Lewes in East Sussex, it became clear that England was rich with fossils like these. They showed that an animal which looked like a lizard had once lived just north of where Mantell had found her leaf.