Robert Fulford's column about dinosaur discoveries

(The National Post, August 14, 2001)

The science news that came out of Egypt in June produced a little flutter of delight in the hearts of dinosaur lovers everywhere. Josh Smith, a University of Pennsylvania student working toward his PhD at a site 390 kilometres southwest of Cairo, had found evidence of a previously unknown dinosaur, the second-biggest ever discovered.

Dinosaurs have stalked the human imagination since we first began learning about them, 150 years ago. They are now so imbedded in our thinking that we find it hard to realize how recently they became known: Neither Julius Caesar nor Shakespeare nor Beethoven ever heard of them. Today most children go through a dinosaur-fascinated phase, and few adults ever quite lose the sense of wonder they felt when they first learned that animals as big as houses once wandered in herds on every continent. European science of the 19th century dismantled the Bible's miracles but replaced them with a menagerie of creatures far more impressive than anything humans had imagined.

The find in Egypt demonstrated that discovering dinosaurs remains a lively enterprise, a work in progress that's picking up speed. Between the first discoveries in the 1830s and the end of the 1960s, 170 dinosaur genera were uncovered. That seemed a lot, but today the number stands well above 300, mostly because researchers have moved into more distant regions. It's likely that many more dinosaurs, now sleeping silently in remote mountains, will be revealed in this century.

Josh Smith and his colleagues knew they had something startling when they found the fossil of a humerus, or upper arm, that was 1.7 metres long; placed upright, it stood as high as a fairly tall man. This made their dinosaur nearly as big as the biggest known, Argentinosaurus, a South American beast whose humerus was probably 1.8 metres long. Chunks of shoulder and vertebrae confirmed the size of the new find, but, as usual, the scholars had to infer many of its characteristics. They decided that each of its feet was a metre wide.

It was a long-necked, long-tailed herbivore, and it lived in tidal swamplands; 94 million years ago, southwest Egypt was at the edge of an ocean. So Smith and his fellow scholars gave it the name Paralititan stromeri. Paralititan means "tidal giant," and stromeri is a bow to Ernst Stromer von Reichenbach, the Munich geologist who first searched this site in 1911; the Americans were following in his path.

Stromer was in turn a successor of the original scientists and amateurs who daringly concluded, on the basis of some scattered bones, that giant prehistoric animals had existed. The story of those pioneer diggers and theorists is told with sympathetic enthusiasm in The Dragon Seekers: How an Extraordinary Circle of Fossilists Discovered the Dinosaurs and Paved the Way for Darwin (Perseus Publishing), by Christopher McGowan, senior curator of paleobiology at the Royal Ontario Museum.

McGowan describes a British scientific meeting in 1824 at which the Rev. William Buckland (who vainly struggled all his life to reconcile the Bible and science) reported on a giant lizard that had left hints of its existence in the rock at Stonesfield, near Oxford. Its femur was 84 centimetres long, which meant the animal was probably 12 metres long. It was a flesh eater whose teeth were serrated, like steak knives. Buckland described it as the "great fossil lizard of Stonesfield" and named it Megalosaurus. It was the first dinosaur known to modernity -- though no one yet said "dinosaur." In 1842 the name was concocted by Sir Richard Owen, a great anatomist, who proposed "dinosauria," meaning "fearfully great lizard."

McGowan deploys a rich cast of characters. One Englishman who helped push along the new science was Thomas Hawkins. Unfortunately, he was also something of a fraud and, as eventually became clear, quite mad. He rather improved on a major fossil that he sold to the Museum of Natural History so that it was hard to tell which part of the final object was found in the rock and which was sculpted by Hawkins. He went into a great rage and threatened litigation when anyone suggested his material was dubious. He had a romantic way of writing about his specimens: One "came forth at the magic touch of my chisel ... and I was the creator. I worshipped it for hours in my mad intoxication of spirit."

At the heart of the story McGowan places an astonishing woman, Mary Anning (1799-1847), who overcame grim handicaps and found a place in history by using her one spectacular advantage. She was poor and uneducated, and as the only woman among dedicated fossilists she was regarded with disdain. Her great advantage, on the other hand, was growing up in the right place (Lyme Regis, on the Dorset coast, where the soft Blue Lias rock was rich in fossils) and coming to maturity at the right time (the 1820s, when the fossils had attracted attention but weren't yet picked over). She had imagination, energy and a sense of mission. Hunting specimens for collectors and museums provided her with only a meagre income, but she came to understand the meaning of these rocks better than some of the men who purchased them from her and often took the credit.

Beyond paleontology, Lyme Regis is best known to the world as the setting of The French Lieutenant's Woman, the 1969 novel by John Fowles. Fossil hunting is built into that narrative, and in the film version we first glimpse Jeremy Irons as he wields his chisel to cut centuries of rock away from the fossil of a sea creature. In the novel, Fowles deplores the fact that no one named a species after Mary Anning till she was long dead. But in 1999, at the bicentenary of her birth, paleontologists from several countries gathered at Lyme Regis, with amateurs like Fowles among them, for a four-day conference to salute the woman now recognized as (in the recent words of the British Journal of the History of Science) "the greatest fossilist the world ever knew." In science, the most crucial work is often done by those who are least noticed by the great eminences of the day. These pioneers tend to receive their honours posthumously, which is better than not receiving them at all.

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