Paul Barrett: The man who discovered the dinosaurs

From a talk by the palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum to mark the bicentenary of Sir Richard Owen

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Sir Ricahrd Owen was the most accomplished anatomist of his time, and one of the pre-eminent figures in Victorian scientific circles. His studies on animals as diverse as fossil marsupials and the dodo represented fundamental contributions to the embryonic sciences of zoology and palaeontology. Nevertheless, he is remembered principally for the invention of one word, which permeates public consciousness to this day: dinosaur.

Sir Ricahrd Owen was the most accomplished anatomist of his time, and one of the pre-eminent figures in Victorian scientific circles. His studies on animals as diverse as fossil marsupials and the dodo represented fundamental contributions to the embryonic sciences of zoology and palaeontology. Nevertheless, he is remembered principally for the invention of one word, which permeates public consciousness to this day: dinosaur.

During the early 19th century, remains of fossil reptiles were discovered in the rocks of central and southern England, revealing an unsuspected diversity of prehistoric life. The British Association for the Advancement of Science commissioned Owen to produce a report summarising the available information on the anatomy, biology and relationships of these creatures.

Owen noted that three fossil reptiles, Iguanodon, Megalosaurus and Hylaeosaurus, shared a number of anatomical features that were not present in any other known reptiles, living or extinct. The hips and hind limbs were constructed like those of large living mammals, such as elephants, with the legs tucked beneath the body. This contrasted with other reptiles, such as lizards and crocodiles, in which the legs are held away from the body, in a sprawling posture. This led him to suggest these three fossil reptiles had a much more mammalian way of life than other reptiles, and were perhaps warm-blooded. Owen proposed a new group be erected to contain Iguanodon, Megalosaurus and Hylaeosaurus: the Dinosauria, or "terrible lizards".

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