Palaeontology and Britain
In its simplest form, palaeontology is the study of prehistoric life, through examination of fossils. Palaeontology is, however, not just dinosaurs. Dinosaurs constitute a miniscule portion of what palaeontology is. After all, a myriad of different, and often down-right bizarre, organisms lived long before the dinosaurs and ended up as fossils under their feet. Regardless, the imagination and wonderment that dinosaurs create are why they are considered a symbol for palaeontology – they are a gateway into this most incredible of sciences.
The geology and palaeontology in Britain is incredibly diverse. Rocks of almost every geological period are exposed and have been studied for hundreds of years. This provided a platform for geology and palaeontology to flourish and evolve. Some rather notable individuals include the geologist, William Smith – the ‘Father of Geology’. In 1815, Smith created the very first geological map of England, Wales and part of Scotland, a ground-breaking achievement. Incredible fossil discoveries found along the beach at Lyme Regis, by the greatest fossil hunter ever, Mary Anning, paved the way for the first scientific descriptions of large, extinct reptiles – the ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs. The Rev William Buckland provided the very first scientific description of a dinosaur – this would change the world.
Our fascination and intrigue in studying and examining the rocks and fossils within has unlocked an ancient, alien world. If you could travel back tens of millions of years, you would be hard-pressed to recognise the area that today forms the British Isles.
A brief history of British dinosaur discoveries
Whether it is a feathered theropod from China, a colossal sauropod from South America or a new species from some other far-away land, most new dinosaur discoveries from around the world are now the major talking point in dinosaur palaeontology. ‘Dinosaur’ and ‘Britain’ are rarely used together in the same sentence, but, if you can excuse the pun, they should really be two words set in stone.
The name ‘dinosaur’, meaning terrible (or fearfully great) lizard in Greek, was created sometime between 1841 and 1842 by the famous scientist, Sir Richard Owen – founder of the Natural History Museum in London. The very first time Owen mentioned the word in public was during a meeting in Plymouth on 20 July 1841. Hence, the very concept of dinosaurs is a British ‘invention’. This name was coined to distinguish the remains of several large-bodied fossil ‘lizards’ discovered in the English countryside during the early 1800s. The very first was Megalosaurus, collected from slate mines in the small village of Stonesfield in Oxfordshire and described in 1824 by the Rev William Buckland. The second was Iguanodon, collected from quarries around Cuckfield in West Sussex and described in 1825 by a country doctor called Gideon Mantell. And finally, there is the often forgotten Hylaeosaurus, also collected near Cuckfield and described in 1833, also by Mantell. Although these large ‘lizards’ were not identified as dinosaurs at the time, their descriptions represent the first scientific accounts of what can definitively be identified as dinosaurs. It was Owen, who later recognised an important link between these animals and other isolated bones, which helped him to establish the new-found group, Dinosauria. Historically, over 100 different species of dinosaur were described from remains in the British Isles, although today, palaeontologists consider approximately 50 to 60 species as valid. There are roughly 1,500 species of dinosaur known worldwide and the British representatives therefore constitute approximately 4% of all dinosaurs currently known.
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Dean R Lomax