The early history of pterosaur discovery in Great Britain
Published:January 01, 2010
David M. Martill, 2010. "The early history of pterosaur discovery in Great Britain", Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians: A Historical Perspective, R. T. J. Moody, E. Buffetaut, D. Naish, D. M. Martill
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The first pterosaur fossil was described by Cosimo Alessandro Collini in 1784, but the epithet ptero dactyle was not applied until Georges Cuvier recognized the fossil as that of a volant animal in 1801. In eighteenth-century Britain, pterosaur bones had been discovered in Jurassic strata at Stonesfield, Oxfordshire but were considered to be bird bones, and largely went unnoticed. Bones of pterosaurs considerably larger than those of the first pterosaurs were discovered in the early nineteenth century by Gideon Mantell, but because of their comparatively large size were considered by Cuvier to also be the bones of birds. This perception by early nineteenth-century palaeontologists, including William Buckland and Gideon Mantell, that pterosaurs were relatively small animals was probably the reason their remains went unrecognized in British Jurassic and Cretaceous strata for several decades. Furthermore, the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century dogmatic acceptance that fossil birds were present in the Jurassic Stonesfield ‘slate’ of Oxfordshire delayed the identification of medium-sized pterosaurs until the late 1820s, when Dean William Buckland described the Liassic Pterodactylus (= Dimorphodon) macronyx in 1829. Even after that date many fragmentary, but large, pterosaur bones were misidentified as avian, despite there being no convincing evidence for Mesozoic birds until the discovery of Archaeopteryx in the 1860s. Truly gigantic pterosaurs were first discovered in Great Britain some 20 years before Pteranodon was found in the Late Cretaceous of Kansas. However, the British material was so fragmentary that it was easily eclipsed by the spectacular, near-complete skeletons of Pteranodon found by O. C. Marsh and others from the 1870s onwards.
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Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians: A Historical Perspective
The discovery of dinosaurs and other large extinct ‘saurians’—a term under which the Victorians commonly lumped ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, pterosaurs and their kin—makes exciting reading and has caught the attention of palaeontologists, historians of science and the general public alike. The papers in this collection go beyond the familiar tales about famous ‘fossil hunters’ and focus on relatively little-known episodes in the discovery and interpretation (from both a scientific and an artistic point of view) of dinosaurs and other inhabitants of the Mesozoic world. They cover a long time span, from the beginnings of ‘modern’ scientific palaeontology in the 1700s to the present, and deal with many parts of the world, from the Yorkshire coast to Central India, from Bavaria to the Sahara. The characters in these stories include professional palaeontologists and geologists (some of them well-known, others quite obscure), explorers, amateur fossil collectors, and artists, linked together by their interest in Mesozoic creatures.