Dinosaur fossils have been emerging from the rocks for millions of years, and people have been collecting them long before they knew what creatures they belonged to. In ancient China, dinosaur bones were believed to be the bones of dead dragons. It was not until 1841 that scientists recognized that huge reptiles had existed in the remote past. An eminent scientist of the time, Sir Richard Owen, declared this extinct group should be called Dinosauria.
The world’s first picture of a dinosaur bone was printed in a book by Robert Plot in 1677. It baffled everyone at first – some people thought it belonged to a giant elephant. Scientists today know it was part of the thigh bone of the giant dinosaur Megalosaurus.
The anatomist and palaeontologist Sir Richard Owen was the first person to recognize dinosaurs as a distinct group, and he gave them their name in 1842. Combining the Greek words deinos (“terrible”) and sauros (“lizard”), he created the word Dinosauria.
In 1822, Dr Gideon Mantell and his wife, Mary Ann, found some large teeth and bones near a quarry in Lewes, England. Dr Mantell concluded they belonged to a giant reptile, which he named Iguanodon.
A specimen is recognized officially by scientists only when its description is published. The first person to describe and name a dinosaur was Dr William Buckland. In 1824, he published a description of an animal he called Megalosaurus.
Buckland’s work on Megalosaurus was based on the study of a fossil jaw. It had been housed in a museum in Oxford, England, since 1818. The size and shape suggested the jaw belonged to a giant reptile that was up to 12 m (40 ft) long. For this reason, Buckland gave the animal the name Megalosaurus, which means “big lizard”.
In 1853, British sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins teamed up with Richard Owen to build the first ever full-size dinosaur models. Using concrete, he created replicas of Megalosaurus, Iguanodon, and Hylaeosaurus.
In 1860, the impression of a feather was found in limestone in Bavaria, Germany. The next year, in the same area, the fossil of the earliest known bird was found. It was named Archaeopteryx, which means “ancient wing”.
In 1878, coal miners in Bernissart, Belgium, found a giant fossil skeleton. Over the next three years, excavators managed to recover the skeletons of 32 Iguanodon from the mine. They were the first complete skeletons ever found.
In the 1880s, the fierce rivalry between fossil hunters Marsh and Cope drove them to find and identify nearly 130 new North American dinosaurs. At the time, this battle of egos was known as the Bone Wars.