Two hundred years ago: Dinosaurs thus changed the history of science

Exactly two centuries have passed since the birth of a cultural phenomenon that continues to fascinate adults and children: “dinomania”. that is, an interest, sometimes beyond all rules, in dinosaurs. It was February 1824 when the English theologian and naturalist William Buckland compiled the first scientific description of a dinosaur: a huge jaw and gigantic limbs, found in the 17th and 18th centuries in a quarry near Oxford in southern England, were described as such, and no longer as the remains of dragons, giants or other mythological creatures. This means that they were sketched as parts of a large reptile. On the pages of the journal of the Geological Society of London, this priest called the animal, which he subjected to careful analysis, “Megalosaurus” or more simply “large reptile”. It would be almost another 20 years before biologist Richard Owen coined the term “dinosaur” for them. At a time when it was thought that the “extinction” of a living species was not possible, dinosaurs began to capture the human imagination and it continued to escalate. Introduced in 1852 by Charles Dickens Megalosaurus in the first paragraph of his novel A bleak house and in 1854 the sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins created several huge sculptures of prehistoric animals for the Crystal Palace in London.

A passion from the public and palaeontologists that gave life to a multi-million euro industry, which in fact saw directors with films of all kinds, documentaries, but also toys, theme parks and books. But one should not think that today, 200 years after the first studies, everything is known about dinosaurs, on the contrary. Although new fossils are being discovered around the world at an astonishing rate, research suggests that known species are only a small fraction of those that actually lived (perhaps less than 30 percent), so much so that on average, one new species is added to the approximately 2,000 known species every month. Paleontologist Steve Brusatte from the University of Edinburgh says: “Paleontology is still a field where we are constantly making new discoveries and you can never predict what you will find.”

And the fascination with dinosaurs never ends. Scientists want to know how they lived, what they did, how they were born, what color they were, what sounds they made, how they died, why they disappeared. People want to know the same things but visually through documentaries or dioramas where they want to “see” and “touch” what the dinosaur was like and be amazed. In the 200 years since the first description of a dinosaur, many discoveries have been made about their behavior, from whether they lived alone or moved in herds, to some characteristics that seem almost strange to us, such as the fact that some had parasites in their bones and in their intestines , that others suffered from tumors or who fought among themselves, leaving behind deep bites, scratches, fractures and amputations. For example, explains Mattia Baiano, researcher at the Ernest Bachmann Civic Museum in Neuquén, Argentina, author of an article on this topic published in “BMC Ecology and Evolution”: «Through computed tomography, we confirmed that members of the abelisaurids, a family of predators from South America, had an innate developmental diseases and bites with infections. Studying these diseases is an open window to learn more about the biology of these animals. But we’re just at the beginning.”

Such was the interest in dinosaurs that more than a century ago there was fierce competition between fossil hunters in the American West, eager to get hold of the largest and most complete dinosaur specimen. When the first fossils Tyrannosaurus rex in Montana (USA) the discovery was celebrated more as a commercial than a scientific triumph. In its first account of this iconic predator, published in 1905, the New York Times described it as “the most imposing fighting animal ever recorded,” “the king of all kings in the field of animal life,” “the absolute leader of the earth,” “the man-eater of the jungle “, “the absolute warlord of his time 8,000,000 years ago”. This shows, on the one hand, what imaginations the animal aroused, and on the other hand, how little was known at the beginning of the 20th century.

However, we had to wait until 1964 for a more realistic picture of these animals, thanks to John Ostrom, who challenged the widespread belief that dinosaurs were slow and heavy species that dragged their tails like crocodiles. The discovery of a small bipedal predator, which he named Deinonychus, led him to believe that many dinosaurs were agile, intelligent, able to hunt in groups. Then the big discovery: in 1980, the geologist Walter Álvarez and his father, the physicist Luis Álvarez, proposed a bold hypothesis about how the dinosaurs perished: an asteroid impact 66 million years ago would have caused the death of most of these animals. And they did it by studying a small layer of rock near Gubbio that contains anomalous percentages of iridium, an element abundant in asteroids. In the 1990s, the hypothesis was confirmed by the discovery of a crater on the coast of Yucatán, Mexico, left by an asteroid impact that was probably between 10 and 15 kilometers in diameter. However, it is possible that huge eruptions active on Earth at that time and the decline of some already ongoing dinosaur families also contributed to their disappearance.

After years of strife, the discovery of the first feathered dinosaur in northeastern China in 1996 (First, Sinosauropteryx) allowed us to state that dinosaurs did not “quite die out” because modern birds are their direct descendantsand Is this the end of the story? No, scientific, cultural, but also economic history continues and will continue at least until we know 90 percent of living species, which according to paleontologists will require at least another century of excavations and research.


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