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Digging Up the Dinosaurs (September 2020): Home

by Larry T. Spencer


This essay first appeared in the September 2020 issue of Choice (volume 58 | issue 1).


Let us assume that every living adult in the US has at some time in their life been either fascinated by or afraid of dinosaurs: whether frightened as a moviegoer by the Velociraptors in the first Jurassic Park film; entertained as a preschooler by the melodic wisdom of Barney, the animated purple Tyrannosaurus; or amused, while driving down the road, by the ubiquitous long-necked Diplodocus icon on the Sinclair Oil sign. In fact, even though most dinosaurs have been extinct since the end of the Mesozoic era, this group of vertebrate beasts still makes its presence felt in our modern society. Whether intended as an injurious insult or spoken only in jest, we often use the term “dinosaur” in everyday speech to indicate that a person is out of sync with respect to modern times. We display dinosaur fossil remains in many of our science museums to attract and educate new visitors and budding scientists. We even build live action models, not only for our museums but also for malls and parks, to generate lucrative traffic.

The term dinosaur was coined in the early 1840s by Sir Richard Owen of the British Museum, who fashioned the term from Greek and Latin roots to describe some huge reptilian fossils that had recently been found in England. His intent in creating the name was to classify these animals as belonging to a unique phylogenetic group of fearfully great lizards, by virtue of the combined root word meanings of “terrible” and “lizard.” The term was based on evident morphological attributes, such as the huge size and structure of the pectoral and pelvic girdles, the limbs associated with each girdle, and the skull. As Owen and his contemporaries thought, dinosaurs probably originated at the end of the Paleozoic era and were present on Earth until most of them became extinct at the end of the Mesozoic, an existence of roughly 165 million years. The qualifier “most of them” has become more salient today, however, because according to all but a few contemporary paleontologists, birds are thought to be one group of dinosaurs to have survived an extinction event that is presumed to have taken place at the end of the Mesozoic (65 million years BP).

This essay will examine monographic publications dealing with the study of dinosaurs in the United States, from the early explorations associated with scientists in Philadelphia to the present time, when animated dinosaurs are exhibited in museums and science centers all around the country. Although the emphasis is on dinosaur fossil collection and study, in reality, most of the early practitioners could really be called vertebrate paleontologists, as their interests included studies of fossil fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. Thus, the true subject of the essay is the growth of vertebrate paleontology in the United States, with an emphasis on how the dinosaurs facilitated this development. Subjects covered by the books discussed here include the individuals who first collected dinosaur bones as well as their associated institutions, and later, the overhaul of received wisdom about the dinosaurs at the hands of notable modern contributors. Although some classic works remain unchallenged, the intent is to focus on the considerable body of more recently published literature. The essay has three main sections: part 1 discusses the origins of North American dinosaur studies and early collectors; part 2 explores the development and gradual “speciation” of private and government institutions in the US; and part 3 highlights recent currents of thought, identifying prominent contributors to the modern “dinosaur renaissance,” which is international in scope.

Larry T. Spencer is professor emeritus of biology and biological sciences at Plymouth State University.