The prominent figures of the 1800s who gave rise to vertebrate palaeontology

For centuries, the creatures of the past, from the terrifying theropod dinosaurs to the tiny early mammals, have captured the imaginations of millions. However, the people who put those beasts into the limelight are rarely acknowledged for their work and, in many cases, remain unknown. So here is a short account of some of the first prominent names in the world of vertebrate palaeontology, their contributions to the field, and an insight into the often eccentric behaviour that came with it.

Fig. 1. Georges Cuvier.

Georges Cuvier (1769-1832)

Georges Cuvier was a French naturalist and zoologist, and is regarded as the ‘’father of palaeontology’’. He was one of the finest minds in history, founding vertebrate palaeontology as a scientific discipline. For example, in 1800, he identified Pterodactylus as the first known pterosaur from a print published by Alessandro Collini. Shortly after, he described the first mosasaur, a giant marine reptile that was brought to France by Napoleon after he conquered the Netherlands.

Going against his old Christian (Catholic) upbringing, Cuvier believed the Earth was immensely old and, during its history, underwent abrupt changes that Cuvier called ‘revolutions’, in which large numbers of species were wiped out. This was the first recognition that extinctions were facts. Cuvier also rightly speculated that there had been a time where reptiles had been the dominant animals on the planet. Indeed, the decades after his death yielded spectacular finds that confirmed his theory.

After a study comparing modern elephant species, he worked on fossil mammoths of Europe and Siberia, soon realising they were completely different to any living species. He then went on to document the past existence of other large Pleistocene mammals, such as the Irish Elk and the giant ground sloth.

“All of these facts, consistent among themselves, and not opposed by any report, seem to me to prove the existence of a world previous to ours, destroyed by some kind of catastrophe’’ (George Cuvier, 1796).

Cuvier’s work in comparative anatomy lead him to classify animals into four separate groups (vertebrates, molluscs, articulates and radiates), then introduce fossils into zoological classification. Along with his ideas on extinctions and catastrophism, he set the science of palaeontology on a firm foundation.


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