Fossils have been collected by man for at least 30,000 years, as the Grotte du Trilobite caverns in France attest. Some bygone ancestor found a couple of trilobites and reverently stowed them away in what can only be interpreted as a holy place. We had to wait for the scientific explosion of the Victorian era, however, before any scientific study was done. The first dinosaur to be discovered in Europe was Plateosaurus ('flat lizard'), found in the Triassic sandstone of Southern Germany, in 1837.
The first American dinosaur remains were a few assorted teeth found by a geological survey of Montana in 1855. These were followed by the discovery of Hadrosaurus ('big lizard'), in Haddonfield, New Jersey in 1858. This Entry concentrates on dinosaur discoveries on the Isle of Wight, off the south-east coast of England. The first recorded discovery of dinosaur remains on the Isle of Wight consisted of an Iguanodon ('iguana tooth') pedal phalanx (toe bone), found by the Rev. William Buckland in 1829. A complete Hypsilophodon ('high ridge tooth') skeleton was discovered on the Island in 1832.
Dinosaur Hunters of the Isle of Wight
William Buckland (1784-1856)
William Buckland was an effusive and permanently busy character, who held the posts of Dean of Westminster Abbey, and Professor of Geology at Oxford University. He named and scientifically described Megalosaurus ('great lizard') in 1824. In doing so he went down in history as the first man to name a dinosaur (although the term 'dinosaur' had yet to be coined). His Megalosaurus had been found in Oxfordshire. 1829 saw him as the first person to discover and describe dinosaur remains on the Isle of Wight. This was the Iguanodon pedal phalanx, found at Yaverland in 1829.
In 1832, Buckland spent the summer at Yaverland, and found five boxes worth of fossils, the first Island dinosaur bones to be part of a dinosaur collection. William Buckland also had a complete Hypsilophodon skeleton in his collection from the Brighstone area, but failed to recognise it as a new species, believing it to be a baby Iguanodon.
Gideon Algernon Mantell (1790-1852)
A physician and surgeon who lived in Lewes, East Sussex, and first discovered the dinosaur he named Iguanodon in 1822. Several versions of the story of how he discovered the first bone exist, the most popular is that his wife, Mary Ann Mantell, found a large, unusual tooth in a lump of rock by the roadside outside a house in Ringmer. Mantell was unable to identify it, yet knew enough geology to know that the rocks were from the Cretaceous.
He located the quarry in Cuckfield from which the teeth had come, and from there found some of the rest of the remains of an animal which he believed was like a prehistoric iguana, which he named Iguanodon, meaning Iguana Tooth. Publishing the description in 1825, he became the second person to publish the discovery of a dinosaur. He did not see any significant remains of an Iguanodon until 1834, when he was given a sandstone block containing Iguanodon bones. This was nicknamed the 'Mantell-Piece'.
Mantell wrote several books on geology and palaeontology, including Geological excursions round the Isle of Wight and Along the Adjacent Coast of Dorsetshire in 1854, and the article Notes On The Wealden Strata of the Isle of Wight, with an Account of the Bones of Iguanodon and Other Reptiles Discovered at Brook Point and Sandown Bay in the second Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London in 1846. The dinosaur Iguanodon mantelli is named after him.
Sir Richard Owen (1804-1892)
Sir Richard Owen is perhaps most famous for inventing the term 'Dinosauria' in 1842 to describe the first three dinosaurs to be discovered - Buckland's Megalosaurus and Mantell's Iguanodon and Hylaeosaurus. He was instrumental in establishing the British Museum of Natural History, now known as the Natural History Museum.
Owen created the name 'Dinosauria' after closely examining an Iguanodon sacrum discovered on the Isle of Wight in late 1841. This was the first Iguanodon sacrum discovered, and Owen noticed that it had identical characteristics to the sacrum of Megalosaurus: the five sacral vertebrae that formed the lower part of the spine of both Megalosaurus and Iguanodon were fused identically1. This unique characteristic immediately distinguished the dinosaurs from the other pre-historic lizards found; the sea lizards, pterosaurs and crocodiles did not have a fused sacrum. This discovery meant that dinosaurs could be united into a distinct group separate from all other forms of prehistoric reptiles, and Owen created the name 'Dinosauria' in recognition.
Owen also named some Isle of Wight dinosaurs, including Poekilopleuron pusillus and Polacanthus foxii, named after William Fox. He went dinosaur hunting on the Island on a number of occasions, and was a good friend of the Reverend Fox (see below).
Charles Darwin (1809-1882)
Both he and his theory of Evolution are world-known, and remain as famous and controversial now as when first published in his On The Origin Of Species in 1859. Although he did not discover any dinosaurs himself, his theory of Evolution has had a major impact in the way dinosaurs are viewed.
Charles Darwin started writing The Origin Of The Species while at Sandown, very near Yaverland2. It is likely that while on the Island that he went dinosaur hunting, and if not, its fame as a prime location of fossils would doubtlessly have been known to him.
Reverend William Fox (1813-1881)
William Fox became curate of the village of Brighstone in 1862. It was a perfect place from which to study the Wealden Cliffs of the south-west coast of the Island. Although Fox was not a professional scientist, his impact on the study and discovery of dinosaurs is highly significant.
He discovered many new dinosaurs, including Aristosuchus, Calamospondylus and Polacanthus, and was the first to realise that Hypsilophodon was a dinosaur species in its own right, and not a juvenile Iguanodon. He has more dinosaurs named after him than any other Englishman.
Dinosaurs were his passion, so much so that he gained the respect, and friendship, of scientists such as Sir Richard Owen and John Hulke (President of the Geological Society of London in 1882). Fox was described as putting 'always the bones first and the parish next', and wished for a permanent position in Brighstone, saying 'I cannot leave this place while I have any money left to live on, I take such deep joy in hunting for old dragons.'
Although Fox was unable to retain his position in Brighstone, he stayed on the Island until he died. His vast fossil collection is now part of the Natural History Museum collection.
Samuel Husbands Beckles (1814-1890)
Although he mainly went dinosaur hunting in Sussex, he visited the Island on several occasions. He was the first person to discover dinosaur footprints on the Island, which he described in On Some Natural Casts of Footprints from the Wealden of the Isle of Wight and Swanage, published in 1862 in both The Geologist and the Quarterly Journal Of The Geological Society of London.
Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895)
Huxley was very much in favour of Charles Darwin's theory of Evolution, and was nicknamed 'Darwin's Bulldog'. Huxley wrote On Hypsilophodon foxii, a new Dinosaurian from the Wealden of the Isle of Wight in the Quarterly Journal Of The Geological Society Of London(1869). In 1870 he proposed the theory that birds evolved from dinosaurs, a theory which, despite being ridiculed at the time of publication, is widely supported today.
Harry Govier Seeley (1839-1909)
Famous for writing Dragons Of The Air (the first popular account of pterosaurs), Seeley also described many of the Island's other dinosaurs, including Ornithopsis, Ornithodesmus and Sphenospondylus. Perhaps his largest contribution to palaeontology was in recognising that dinosaurs could be divided into two groups, the Ornithischia and the Saurischia, depending on differences in the construction of the pelvis.
Dinosaurs Of The Isle Of Wight
- Dinosaurs of the Isle of Wight
- Why The Island Is Special
- Live From Dinosaur Island