A dinosaur was first mentioned 200 years ago

Two hundred years ago, a dinosaur was given a scientific name for the first time. It was mentioned Megalosaurus, and it’s a strange moment in history to think about in retrospect, because at the time no one knew what a dinosaur was. The word ‘dinosaur’ wasn’t used until about twenty years later, so what did the discoverers of Megalosaurus Do you think they were watching?

On February 20, 1824, clergyman, geologist and fellow at Oxford University William Buckland (who allegedly ate a king’s heart) presented Megalosaurus at a meeting of the Geological Society. The name is derived from “large lizard,” which is close enough to what Buckland thought he was dealing with.

“[There were] several years of people finding strange bones in the ground and wondering about them, but eventually they put two and two together and realized that these weren’t just any old bones, but the bones of a giant reptile,” says Professor Paul. Barrett of London’s Natural History Museum, who has published several articles about it Megalosaurus, told IFLScience. “And that’s where the name comes from Megalosaurus comes from, it means ‘big lizard’, and what they thought it was was just a souped-up regular type of lizard, they thought it was basically a huge iguana or a huge Komodo dragon-like animal.

We spoke to Barrett in the bowels of the Natural History Museum, where authentic and cast Megalosaurus Fossils can be found to learn about its discovery, what we’ve learned about dinosaurs since, and how it was almost named after testicles…

How did we come from discovering Megalosaurus until the official recognition of dinosaurs twenty years later?

Prof. Paul Barrett: Megalosaurus appears in 1824, to much acclaim that people have never seen anything like it, and then more and more bones of these things start coming from Oxfordshire, Sussex and Kent. They are also found in other parts of Britain, so museums are starting to build collections of them.

And a few years later, after all these remains had been collected and several people had studied them, Sir Richard Owen – the leading anatomist at the time – suddenly realized that these animals had something in common. They weren’t just big lizards or big crocodiles, they were something special, and that led him to coin the name dinosaur in 1842. And it was his lobbying that ensured the Natural History Museum was built in the first place.

How did a Megalosaurus fossil almost named after testicles?

PM: A few hundred years before the material Megalosaurus was found, some strange bones continued to turn up under the plow in places like Oxfordshire, and one of those bones was the end of a femur, and this femur has a very suggestive shape. It’s just the end of a femur.

At first they thought it was part of an elephant and perhaps the Romans had taken it. Then they thought it might be part of a giant man, and that’s when things start to take a somewhat salacious turn.

[It was thought that] if it was a giant man, it was a…. a very well-endowed gigantic man, let’s say, and that’s how this piece of bone ended up getting a name Scrotum humanumbut it turns out that femur is probably a bit of a Megalosaurus thigh bone.

Dentine of Megalosaurus bucklandii

Dentine of Megalosaurus bucklandiihoused in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

Image credit: Trustees of the Natural History Museum

How many species Megalosaurus were there?

PM: There is currently one species, it is called Megalosaurus bucklandiiand that species name commemorates William Buckland who described it Megalosaurus in the first place. But over the years, a number of other large carnivorous dinosaurs are also said to have been mentioned Megalosaurus.

This goes back to old ideas about how we would classify animals and what we call a ‘trash taxon’. Megalosaurus basically became a name that people would throw any big, big, carnivorous dinosaur in without really thinking about whether it had anything to do with it Megalosaurus or not. Over the years there has been a very careful program to actually go through all these species Megalosaurus and training, are they really? Megalosaurus? Or are they actually something else? And [what’s been found] is that the one and only kind of Megalosaurus is Megalosaurus bucklandii.

What do we know about it? Megalosaurus bucklandii?

PM: All our finds consist mainly of isolated bones, and that is because of the way they were collected. But if we take all those bones together, we can actually piece together a large part of the animal. If we do, we will find that Megalosaurus was an animal that was about thirty feet tall [30 feet] long, so quite large. [It was a] large predator, [it] would have walked only on its hind legs, like all other carnivorous dinosaurs, and it was equipped with a large number of large, sharp, pointed teeth that it would have used to tear apart prey.

Do Megalosaurus have a special place in your heart?

PM: It will hold a special place for any dinosaur paleontologist. It is literally the first dinosaur to be given a scientific name. So, if you like, it’s the core of what everyone else is doing. It’s like the foundation of where everything else we do comes from.

Watch the full interview from IFLScience at YouTubeand 200 years of happy Megalosaurus!

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