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Abstract

The early history of reptile palaeontology is reviewed in order to assess the different roles played by museums, collections and collectors. The formal characterization and description of several fossil reptile groups (mosasaurs, pterosaurs, ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs and dinosaurs) is then examined in a series of case histories. Fossil reptile bones were collected from the end of the sixteenth century, originally as objects of curiosity. The comprehensive collection of John Woodward (1665–1728) was an exception to this, and fossil reptiles only comprise a small fraction of the total number of specimens. Early discoveries of reptile fossils were interpreted within an anthropocentric context, with later interpretations being based on contemporary exotic faunas. The emergence of the systematic study of comparative anatomy at the end of the eighteenth century allowed more precise identifications of specimen's affinities, and demonstrated that extinction was a reality. Interpretations were no longer constrained by the contemporary biota. Georges Cuvier was instrumental in both of these advances. Collections and museums of comparative biological material were vital to his methods, and to the whole field of comparative anatomy. By the 1840s, fossil reptiles had been classified into separate and distinguishable groups. Private collectors were important for securing new discoveries, but specimens have only survived when they were acquired by institutional museums. Museums and their collections influenced the careers of such early pioneers as Richard Owen, who later became one of the most politically powerful scientists of the nineteenth century. It is hard to conceive how a field such as palaeontology could survive without collections, as fossil reptiles ably demonstrate.

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