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Guide to Dinosaur Fossils | Dino Fossil Discoveries

Posted on 2022-03-23

Because dinosaurs lived millions of years ago, everything we know about them we've gained from the study of those fragile, bony structures cemented in sedimentary rock — fossils. 

Dinosaur fossils tell us so many things — when they lived, what they looked like, how they acted — even how smart they were. That's a lot of information to gain for something as seemingly boring as a million-year-old skeleton. 

And yet these fossils continue to fascinate us and likely will for centuries to come. 

Origins of Dinosaur Fossil Discovery 

The first dinosaur fossil was found before we even knew dinosaurs existed. For centuries, many people probably mistakenly uncovered dinosaur bones, confused as to what they were looking at. Some of these finds may even have perpetuated the myth that dragons or giants somewhere roamed the earth. 

Ancient Discoveries 

Cultures from the Greeks to Native Americans may have found fossils and fashioned them into an assortment of various objects, from tools to necklaces. Ancient peoples may even have had a greater understanding of what the fossils really were compared to the scientists that came after them. Scholars in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries believed the earth was only a few thousand years old and that fossils were mere creations of some supernatural forces within the earth. It wasn't until the 1800s that these prehistoric fossils started to be examined for what they were — signs of life from an ancient time. 

Mistaken Findings 

Even among the naturalists who waved off fossils as unimportant, there were those that took a greater curiosity to the finds. British naturalist Robert Plot examined a fossil femur in 1677. He described petrified parts of the fossil and thought, because of its size, it belonged to an elephant brought over by the Romans. Later, paleontologists who would look at Plot's illustrations suspected the fossil belonged to a Megalosaurus — a carnivorous dinosaur from the Jurassic period. 

Other misidentified dinosaur fossils came after. Various fossils were mistaken for fish teeth, crocodile bones and many other animals. It makes sense, as one would need quite the imagination and a readily apparent skeleton structure to show them these bones were evidence of some type of giant lizard that once roamed the earth. 

Dinosaur fossils even had a place in the iconic Lewis and Clark expedition. As they explored the new territory of the Louisiana Purchase in 1806, Meriwether Lewis noticed a large bone embedded in a cliff. This was in present-day Billings, Montana — a state that has seen many other fossil finds. Lewis thought the fossil belonged to an enormous fish, but paleontologists today have good reason to believe it was actually a dinosaur fossil.  

"Megalosaurus" Is Born

It was Oxford's Professor of Geology Dean William Buckland who first correctly identified a dinosaur fossil. Along with teaching, Buckland was also the campus's unofficial museum curator. He traveled the world, finding various fossils to add to the collection.

 In 1815, Buckland came across the remains of a very curious fossil in England. After carefully examining the teeth, limbs and jaw, the professor concluded in 1824 that the fossil came from some kind of extinct, carnivorous lizard. He named the creature “Megalosaurus” — a name we still use today. Though he still wasn't quite sure what he was looking at, Buckland is still usually credited for finding the first dinosaur fossil because of that very name. 

“Terrible Lizard” 

Buckland's fascination would soon turn into centuries of study of these ancient fossils. Mary Ann Mantell, wife of geologist Gideon Mantell, would find fossilized dinosaur bones during a walk in England in 1822. After some examination, it was noticed that the fossil resembled an iguana and thus was named “Iguanadon.” 

The umbrella term for all of these strange giant reptilian fossils eluded discoverers for years. It wasn't until 1842 that Sir Richard Owen, a rival of Charles Darwin at the time, coined the term “dinosaurus” for the family of fossils. Owen would go on to help found the London Natural History Museum in 1881, which still holds world-famous dinosaur displays. Even though Owen finally put a label on the collection of strange, reptilian fossils being found, no one had yet found a complete skeleton that would really reveal dinosaurs for what they were. 

The ensuing years of fossil hunting would soon change that. 

Evolution of Dinosaur Fossil Exploration

The mid-19th century would see the expansion of our knowledge about dinosaurs and a growing public interest in the subject. Even though some of the very first dinosaur fossils were found in Europe, it was the discoveries in North America during this time that uncovered the mystery behind those prehistoric beasts.

It was a time of great exploration, adventure and innovation. As adventurers explored, dug and surveyed, they uncovered ancient remains of a past time. These finds were then sent to paleontologists, who could examine the bones at their leisure and identify them for what they were. 

Ferdinand Vandiveer Hayden is generally thought to have discovered the first dinosaur remains in North America. In 1854, during his exploration of the Missouri River, Hayden and his team came across a collection of small teeth. Later, paleontologist Joseph Leidy would examine and describe the specimens as belonging to dinosaurs. 

Bipedal Dinosaurs 

Two years later, a breakthrough find would illuminate the true nature of the dinosaur. It was Leidy again who would describe one of the first nearly complete dinosaur skeletons the world had ever seen. William Parker Foulke uncovered these dinosaur bones while quarrying in New Jersey. To honor that find, the skeleton was named Hadrosaurus foulkii

The significance of this particular dinosaur find was in its limb proportions. Scientists were able to see more with this fossil than with any others, and it allowed them to uncover a shocking find — some of these dinosaurs had been bipedal, meaning they could effectively walk on two legs. This was thought to be completely unnatural for reptiles, and it completely changed the way we thought about these prehistoric creatures. 

The skeleton was displayed in a free-standing bipedal pose at an exhibit in 1868. The public soon came out in droves to see the new strange, standing giant on display. Attendance tripled at the exhibit as people craved to see the skeleton with their own eyes. It was evidence of the growing fascination with dinosaurs and a foreshadowing of the era to come.  

The Golden Age of Fossil Discovery   

The end of the nineteenth century was filled with new dinosaur fossil discoveries, marking the beginning of a golden age. Sometimes known as the First Great Dinosaur Rush in North America, this era was crucial to so many dinosaur finds, and was also marked by fierce competition among paleontologists. The stegosaurus was discovered in the 1870s, followed by the beloved Triceratops in the next decade. 

Areas in Colorado and Wyoming became hotbeds of fossil discovery in the 1870s. Skeletons were found in masses here. The discoveries were fueled by two paleontologists, Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Marsh, who started as friends but, as the hunt for dinosaur fossils great heated, soon became legendary rivals. This rivalry would lead to over a hundred discoveries of new dinosaur species in America, but it would ultimately lead to the demise of both men in a tragically public way. 

Marsh vs. Cope 

The Marsh and Cope relationship started out as amicable. Cope, born nine years earlier, was the younger of the two and met Marsh while studying overseas in Germany. There, the two men formed the foundations that would become the beginnings of an unquenchable rivalry. 

When they returned to the United States in 1864, the relationship remained friendly — Cope even named an amphibian fossil after Marsh in 1867 — Ptyonius marshii. Marsh followed suit the next year, naming a “gigantic serpent” from New Jersey Mosasaurus copeanus. 

The relationship started to crumble when Cope, in a friendly gesture, showed Marsh around a fossil quarry in New Jersey in 1868. Unknown to Cope, Marsh made an agreement with the quarry owner to have fossils sent directly to him at Yale. Soon after, Marsh would point out a glaring mistake in one of Cope's reconstructions of an extinct animal, which had already been published in scientific journals. 

It was this incident that fueled both men in their fervent hunt as they headed west to find dinosaur fossils. Each was extremely motivated to outdo one another — Marsh may even have had spies to track Cope's progress. Cope rushed to publish his findings before Marsh, going so far as to buy The American Naturalist Journal in 1877. He boosted the number of known dinosaur species from a few to over a hundred in just a few years. Marsh, using his powerful connections in D.C., cut off government funding to Cope, isolating him from publishing and fossil discovery. 

When Marsh came for Cope's fossils, claiming they were collected with federal money, Marsh fought back, sending dozens of nefarious stories and accusations he'd collected over the years to a freelance journalist at the New York Herald. This started a two-week public fight filled with accusations. Both men lost respect — Marsh's funding was slashed and Cope had nothing left but his collection of fossils, and he now struggled to find a bidder for them. 

The two men were left penniless, though their legacy in dinosaur fossil discovery lives on, revered as two of the most impactful paleontologists of their day. As a result, the public became aware of the Late Jurassic period, as well as the discovery of sauropods — the enormous herbivorous dinosaurs known for their long neck, tail and huge limbs. 

The Second Great Dinosaur Rush 

The second great dinosaur rush started in 1910 in the badlands of southern Alberta. This rush also featured a rivalry between Barnum Brown and C.H. Sternberg, though this one was much friendlier and didn't have the kind of bitterness of the previous feud. 

There were so many dinosaur fossils in this area that the challenge wasn't actually finding these fossils — it was finding ones worthy of being mounted in a museum. And another issue was actually getting these fossils back to the museum — one ship loaded with Sternberg's intact dinosaur fossils was overtaken by a German vessel and sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Still, the finds during this time revealed a lot about the world of the Late Cretaceous. 

Stunning Discoveries 

Over the next century, hundreds of species of dinosaurs would be revealed, fanning our imaginations for the prehistoric world and giving us valuable insights into how these creatures lived. Over the years, there have been many fascinating fossils found, somehow petrified and preserved for millions of years. 

Fighting Dinosaurs 

In 1971, an extraordinary find was uncovered in the Gobi Desert. It was a petrified fossil of two dinosaurs clashing in the middle of a deadly fight. A Velociraptor has its clawed foot sunk into the neck of a Protoceratops, while the Protoceratops counters with a strong bite into the Velociraptor's arm. It's an amazing discovery that froze one specific moment in time. Scientists think the two dinosaurs were fossilized like this due to a collapsing sand dune that buried them during the fight. 

Stan and Sue 

The T-rex — one of the largest dinosaur fossils found — is also one of the most beloved for its size and ferocity — and also because we have some of their most complete fossils. The discoveries of these skeletons allowed scientists to gather fascinating information about how the T-rex took over its environment. The fossils “Stan” and “Sue” are two of the most complete T-Rex fossils ever found, garnering enormous attention and value — Stan sold for $31.8 million at an auction in 2020. 

Mummified Nodosaur

One of the most realistic dinosaur fossils was found accidentally by Canadian miners in 2011. It was a mummified Nodosaur, somehow completely intact as it sank to the bottom of the seafloor at its death, remaining undisturbed for millions of years. The fossil is incredibly well-preserved, as you're still able to see the scales and ridges along its back. Scientists were even able to find out what the Nodosaur ate, as the stomach contents of the dinosaur were preserved as well. 

Today, scientists view our era as a new kind of dinosaur fossil renaissance. We're uncovering more fossils than ever, and every day we discover new information about these ancient creatures. Modern techniques for how to find dinosaur fossils and a hunger for more knowledge have led to many discoveries that are sure to continue in the ensuing years. 

FAQs

Fossil discovery is an interesting topic, filled with rich history and fascinating finds. You're likely to have some lingering questions about the topic — here are some frequently asked questions. 

How Old Are Dinosaur Fossils?

Dinosaurs lived during the Mesozoic area, which means the fossils scientists are uncovering age anywhere between 252.2 to 66 million years ago. The Mesozoic came millions of years before humans during a time when the earth was much warmer than it is today. The Mesozoic era is quite the range of time, spanning over nearly 200 million years, which is why the Mesozoic is split up into three separate categories — Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous: 

  • Triassic: The Triassic period, ranging from 252 to 201 million years ago, marked the beginning of the age of dinosaurs. At this time, the earth was hot and dry, and all continents were combined in the giant landmass known as Pangaea. Reptiles thrived in this hot environment, as their skin and kidneys were effective in retaining and conserving water. An extinction event highlighted the end of the Triassic period, wiping out many large land animals. The dinosaurs, however, survived. 
  • Jurassic: In this era, from 201 to 145 million years ago, dinosaurs flourished and evolved. Temperatures dropped slightly, rainfall increased and fauna grew plentiful, providing nourishment for the enormous sauropods of the day. Huge forests of conifer and sequoias sprawled across the landscape, and giant herds of dinosaurs roamed. 
  • Cretaceous: This era — 145 to 66 million years ago — included some of the most well-known dinosaurs like the Triceratops and T-rex. Other animals, such as snakes, flowering plants and bees also populated. Another major extinction happened at the end of the Cretaceous, wiping out most dinosaurs. 

How Are Dinosaur Fossilized? 

The vast majority of dinosaurs were never fossilized. Fossilization is actually a very rare occurrence, requiring multiple factors and specific conditions. In the most common fossilization method, an animal usually dies and then is buried by mud, sand, silt or another material. Over the course of millions of years, other layers pile on top, putting pressure on one another until they eventually evolve into sedimentary rock. At the same time, water leaks down into the bones of the dead animal, leaving behind minerals and turning them to stone. 

Where Are Dinosaur Fossils Found?

Dinosaur fossils are found in dry, barren areas where you can easily spot signs of preserved bones. The badlands of North America, China and Argentina are all common areas to find dinosaur bones. In the United States, states like Montana, Colorado, Wyoming and Utah are common dinosaur fossil discovery locations. 

Fossils are nearly exclusively found in sedimentary rocks, and scientists use geologic maps to see where certain fossils may be buried. They look to see where layers of rock may have formed during the Mesozoic era and, using this knowledge, observe areas free of plants and fauna to find what they're looking for. 

How Do You Find Dinosaur Fossils? 

Paleontologists chart expeditions to various regions that are likely hotbeds for dinosaur fossils. These expeditions are usually based around specific research questions paleontologists are trying to answer and require years of planning using geologic maps and even satellite photos to narrow down a region to dig. 

Once they've arrived at a location, paleontologists start prospecting, which involves walking several miles through the area, observing the ground for signs of fossils. If they do spot something, they carefully brush dirt away to expose the skeleton. From there, quarrying starts. Using chisels, rock hammers and other tools, scientists remove pieces of the rock to further expose the fossils. Paleontologists then apply a special glue to keep the fossil intact.

A team digs a trench around the area of the fossil. Damp toilet paper and plaster bandages are placed over the bones to create a cast. From there, scientists can snap the fossil from the rock. 

Thousands of years ago, people would mistakenly stumble upon dinosaur fossils without knowing what they were. Today, we have teams of scientists who use complicated maps and intricate tools to unearth the remains of these prehistoric beasts. 

How Are Dinosaur Fossils Preserved? 

Once dinosaur fossils are found, there's a whole other process that needs to be done — preserving the fossils. Highly-specialized technicians conduct the involved process of removing intricate bones from the cast created during fieldwork. These technicians use a series of tools — some of which are dental tools — to carefully expose the fossil. They choose materials to preserve it, adding adhesives, glues and fillers to extend its longevity. 

Visit Jurassic Gardens

Dinosaurs were fascinating creatures that continue to interest us today. With all of the movies and books dedicated to these prehistoric reptiles, we're always looking for ways to bring them back to life to engage our imaginations. 

Jurassic Gardens harnesses this interest and gives families the chance to experience real-life dinosaurs. From interactive activities, an arcade and an awesome exhibit, both kids and adults will have a great time. Visit today