Dinosaur Crazy

The Road to Chilecito

by James A. Jensen
Launceston, Tasmania: Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery 183 pp., $20.00 Australian (paper)

Dinosaurs of Darkness

by Thomas H. Rich and Patricia Vickers-Rich
Indiana University Press, 222 pp., $35.00

The year 1677 saw Dr. Robert Plot, Professor of Chymistry and first Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, struggling with a perplexing mystery. Quarry workers at Cornwell (near what is now Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire) had unearthed an object that to modern eyes looks like the end of a bone from a Flintstones cartoon. Plot correctly identified it as “a real bone, now petrified” but its size was incredible—“in compass, near the capita femoris,…two foot,” he marveled. It “must have been the bone of some elephant, brought hither during the government of the Romans in Britain,” concluded the good doctor, who, thankfully for posterity, illustrated the now lost specimen.

Later comparisons revealed that the bone was decidedly unlike those of elephants, and for nearly a century it languished in obscurity. Then in 1758 Carl von Linné published his Systema Naturae, establishing the modern method of classification based on binomial nomenclature, whereby every living and fossil thing is given a binomen—a unique, universally recognized double name. Homo sapiens had begun the task of classifying the world, and within five years Plot’s bone had been incorporated into the new system. The job was done by one Richard Brookes, an Oxford researcher who was so unsure of the identity of the relic that he bestowed a purely descriptive binomen. His appellation Scrotum humanum implied the existence of a very big human being indeed, yet evidently caused no unseemly laughter.

In those infant days of science the very nature of fossils was obscure. A French school of philosophy championed by Jean-Baptist Robinet held that they were a sort of prototype, an attempt by nature to reproduce in stone the organs of humankind. To Robinet, the Scrotum humanum was a rare treasure. Oversize it may have been, but so firm was Robinet’s belief in his theory that it permitted him to make out details in the bony mass, such as the musculature of the testes and even the vestiges of a urethra.

Deborah Cadbury’s Terrible Lizard opens at the dawn of an age when the study of fossils was assuming a more scientific aspect. Although Cadbury makes reference to Plot’s bone, which was the first dinosaur fossil to receive a detailed description, her story proper commences in the England of Jane Austen and concludes in the era of Charles Dickens, when dinosaurs make a debut of sorts in Bleak House (1852). “And would it not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill,” Dickens mused. Cadbury sets herself the task of explaining how this curious Victorian image of dinosaurs came to be, and along the way to reveal something of the human story behind the discoveries.

Cadbury is a writer of great talent and, as one might surmise from her day job as a TV science producer with the BBC, she can tell a story skillfully. Regrettably her grasp of the history of paleontology is slight, resulting in some errors and lost opportunities. The deficiency is felt most keenly in her treatment of the Reverend William Buckland, reader in mineralogy at Oxford and a pioneer in the study of dinosaurs.

Buckland was a true eccentric of the kind that seemed to flourish in natural history circles during the Victorian Age. Cadbury leads us to his lair at Corpus Christi College through the eyes of a contemporary, “…up a narrow staircase [to] a long corridor-like room filled with rocks, shells and bones in dire confusion. In a sort of sanctum at the end was my friend in his black gown, looking like a necromancer, sitting on a rickety chair covered with some fossils….” Unfortunately Cadbury confuses the reverend with his son Frank (it was the latter who owned a trained bear that was dressed in college clothes and attended formal occasions), which is perhaps forgivable since they were a pigeon pair. Truly lamentable, however, is the omission of the Reverend Buckland’s greatest eccentricities. Mention is made of his zoophagy (the eating of assorted creatures, including leopards, crocodiles, and dormice), but we must turn to Lynn Barber’s 1980 book The Heyday of Natural History, 1820–1870,* for the extraordinary details. William Buckland claimed to have eaten part of the heart of Louis XIV, which had been preserved by Lord Harcourt at Nuneham, and even to have risked supping on holy secretions. The latter encounter took place on the Continent in a cathedral where spots of ever-liquefying “martyr’s blood” appeared on the flagstones each morning. The Anglican churchman combined genuflection with a discreet lick and pronounced the precious liquid to be bat’s urine.

The genial Buckland rose high in the Anglican Church, eventually becoming dean of Westminster. His death was as strange as his life. As he worked at his desk (which was covered entirely with petrified reptile droppings), surrounded by fossils, free-range guinea pigs, and jackals (which did not always get along), his eccentricities multiplied. Finally his gestures, which had always been rather unruly, became uncouth and he took to beating himself about the head and scratching so compulsively as to produce alarm in his family. Mrs. Buckland found that he was “afraid of trying his legs,” and eventually the moribund William was carried off to an asylum for the insane, where he died in 1856. In view of what we now know about Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease and related “mad cow” diseases, the great zoophagist’s end is perhaps not so surprising.

William Buckland achieved lasting fame in paleontological circles when, in 1824, he and the Reverend William Conybeare described the partial skeleton of a huge reptile held in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum. The pair named it Megalosaurus, meaning “great lizard,” concluding that the ancient beast had attained a length of forty feet. Buckland was the first person ever to name a dinosaur, Cadbury reports, and it’s a claim that is widely recognized even today. But science is rarely so tidy. After lying in modest obscurity for over two centuries, the Scrotum humanum was resurrected to challenge Buckland’s immortality.

The bone’s significance was first brought to light in the late 1960s when Dr. Barry Cox, a paleontologist at the British Museum of Natural History, and his colleague H. Ball recognized the relic as belonging to none other than Buckland’s Megalosaurus. Soon researchers were arguing that Cox and Ball’s identification meant that Brookes’s Scrotum humanum should supplant Buckland’s Megalosaurus. Objections based on decorum were raised, but were hard to sustain in light of malapropisms such as Mastodon (meaning breast-tooth), which were well accepted. In 1993 the Scrotum humanum’s challenge was quashed, at least for the time being, when the venerable name was disqualified as technically violating the taxonomic code.

Most of Cadbury’s original research is centered on one of Buckland’s contemporaries, Dr. Gideon Mantell, an ambitious medical doctor whose fate it was to become obsessed with fossils. As a young doctor Mantell worked tirelessly for his patients and by the 1830s his family was modestly affluent. Increasingly, however, his time became devoted to the pursuit of fossils, and his life reached a turning point with the discovery and naming of the first herbivorous dinosaur to be recognized, the Iguanodon. Mantell coined the name to reflect the superficial resemblance of its teeth to those of the iguana. The comparison was an unfortunate one, leading Mantell to speculate that the dinosaur resembled a huge lizard, perhaps one hundred feet long. His vision of the creature erred in other ways, for among the partial remains he uncovered was a bony spike which he thought fitted onto Iguanodon’s snout. Eventually it was found to be the creature’s thumb.

Mantell’s tragedy was to be passionate in his pursuit of fossils but mistaken in his worth as a paleontologist and his ability to make a living as one. In 1833 he gave up his flourishing medical practice in Sussex and leased a mansion in Brighton, which he hoped to turn into a paleontological museum. The mansion was festooned with spires, towers, and turrets, and had views of the palace from the front windows; its upkeep required the then princely sum of 350 pounds per year. Despite a magnificent opening, the public did not come and no patron could be found to contribute the thousands needed to establish Mantell in the manner to which he had become accustomed.

The doctor’s grand illusion lasted just four years before fiscal reality brought it crashing down. And yet Mantell’s obsession with fossils only intensified. He became distant from most of his family and seemed indifferent to the suffering brought about by their economic position. In 1839 it became too much for his wife and two oldest children, who left him alone with Hannah, seventeen, and Reginald, twelve. Hannah suffered from a chronic hip infection and within months of the family breakup she was bedridden and suffering unbearably. That autumn, when the sore hemorrhaged, there was nothing that her father could do to save her. Gideon Mantell’s “angel” had been taken from him in the same year that he lost wife, heir, elder daughter, and beloved collection. He would never recover.

Cadbury paints a saint-like picture of Gideon Mantell, seeing in him a potentially great scientist who fell foul of aristocratic prejudice and the machinations of his nemesis, the anatomist Richard Owen. Such contours add momentary drama to her tale, but for the thoughtful reader a two-dimensional view of a complex man is the lasting effect. A far greater disservice, however, is performed to Richard Owen, whom Cadbury sets up as Mantell’s arch rival.

T.H. Huxley wrote of him, “It is astonishing with what an intense hatred Owen is regarded by most of his contemporaries.” This was due in part to his obvious ambition, which inclined him to claim the work of others as his own, but his public persona was little better, for he showed disdainful arrogance to his social inferiors, and as an anatomist he carried the whiff of death. Everyone who met the towering professor noticed his eyes, which were as large, unblinking, and penetrating as those of a dead fish. Like its owner’s scalpel, the glittering stare seemed capable of cutting to the bone.

It is not difficult to portray a person like Owen as a reptile in human form, and Cadbury does a thorough job with a caricature so cold-blooded and merciless that his natural place seems to be among the prehistoric monsters he studied. In everything he does, Cadbury sees Owen scheming to bring down Mantell.

While Owen’s universally acknowledged brilliance as an anatomist earns a nod from Cadbury, she cannot accept that it was competence rather than social scheming that brought him successes such as Royal Society grants to study dinosaurs. Similarly, his careful reassessment of Mantell’s Iguanadon fossils is not seen as an advance in paleontology that corrected many of Mantell’s misconceptions but as an assault upon the man himself. Perhaps predictably, when in 1842 Owen coined the visionary name “dinosaur” (meaning “terrible lizard”) and defined the group on the basis of the anatomy of their pelvic bones, Cadbury does not view it a great day for science. Instead, she writes that in creating the name, “Richard Owen sealed the fate of Gideon Mantell.”

About the time that Owen was revealing to the public an entire era of terrible lizards, Gideon Mantell suffered a carriage accident that left him with a tumor-like growth at the base of his spine. From that moment on Mantell would never be out of pain, and eventually his back would become horribly twisted, contorting his entire body. After his death his vertebrae were excised and sent to the Royal College of Surgeons, where they were placed in Richard Owen’s museum to illustrate “the severest degree of deformity of the spine.” “But not even this final victory, with his rival’s remains dissected, preserved and classified in a suitably scientific manner and now totally under his control, put an end to Owen’s opposition,” writes Cadbury, who suggests that Owen was the author of an anonymous and uncharitable obituary.

Cadbury titles her chapter outlining Owen’s perceived perfidy toward Mantell “The Arch-hater.” Yet the term comes from T.H. Huxley, who astutely observed that it was the tragic figure with the twisted spine who was the “arch-hater” of Owen. Just where fault lay in the Owen–Mantell dispute may never be clear, but Cadbury’s Punch and Judy portrait does not help us to understand either man.

While Terrible Lizards gives us a social commentary on the pioneer age of dinosaur studies, the creatures themselves remain strangely out of focus. This is largely because our ideas of what were dinosaurs have changed so dramatically since the days when Owen pictured them as cumbersome beasts, seemingly hybrid between lizards and rhinoceroses. And of course only a handful of types were then known. Keith Parsons’s Drawing Out Leviathan takes us forward from this era, and across the Atlantic to a time when American paleontologists were giving the dinosaurs a more modern aspect. Parsons’s book is really a philosophical discourse that argues against the postmodernist view that “‘reality’ and ‘nature’ are…whatever scientific convention defines them to be.” Instead it reveals paleontology as a discipline that has been on a slow, even sometimes errant path toward defining a past reality. The book consists of essays on famous paleontological controversies: Robert Bakker and the theory that dinosaurs were warm-blooded; David Raup and the idea that an asteroid impact caused their demise; and, most engaging, W.J. Holland and the wrongheaded Apatosaurus of Pittsburgh.

The donnybrook over the Pittsburgh dinosaur is set in an age when rival magnates and “their” museums jostled for the fabulously rich fossil deposits of the American West. A soured railway deal in 1885 created the fiercest competitors: J.P. Morgan and the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and Andrew Carnegie and his Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. When Carnegie heard that Morgan had obtained the skeleton of an enormous sauropod dinosaur (the long-necked, long-tailed creatures that include the largest land animals ever) he was incensed at his rival’s success, and a check for $10,000 was issued to “his” museum’s director, W.H. Holland, with curt instructions to buy the colossus. That proved impossible, but on July 4, 1899, Holland came up with an even better specimen—a nearly intact, articulated skeleton of a giant sauropod found near Sheep Creek, Wyoming—and in 1901 the creature was formally named Diplodocus carnegii. The only hitch was that the seventy-five-foot-long skeleton lacked a head, and the presence of a decapitated “Uncle Andy” in the museum’s great display hall was unavoidably embarrassing.

Holland was an outstanding paleontologist who knew his sauropods intimately. It was he who had first argued that the great creatures must have stood elephant-like on columnar limbs, rather than sprawling like lizards as maintained by some European researchers. Holland would not bow to pressure to crown Uncle Andy with an uncertain cranium, and for twenty years the skeleton headlessly greeted visitors to the museum. Only after Holland’s death in 1932 was a skull affixed, but in 1978 it was found to belong to an entirely different kind of sauropod. At last, on October 20, 1979, a small ceremony was held at the Carnegie Museum in which a plaster cast of the correct skull was finally placed on Uncle Andy’s soaring neck. For nearly sixty years visitors to the museum had admired an invented, hybrid creature. But eventually paleontology won out.

The story of just how dinosaur remains are discovered in the field and transformed into museum specimens is told in two books, both dealing with expeditions to Argentina. “Dinosaur” Jim Jensen’s posthumously published The Road to Chilecito tells of the 1958 and 1964 Harvard University expeditions to northern Argentina, which resulted in probably the largest single collection of dinosaur material assembled in the twentieth century, including some of the earliest kinds of dinosaurs ever found. Jensen’s candid tale is told through field notes and letters, revealing the Argentinian frontier—complete with gauchos, condors, surreal desert landscapes, and vast dinosaur graveyards—through the wide-open eyes of a young field technician. Jensen’s tale also has its villains, foremost of whom are two Argentinian researchers who had the expedition’s fossils impounded, then made their own collections and beat the Harvard team to the naming of the extinct creatures. Despite being arrested twice (once by a sword-flourishing chief of police), Jensen retained a great affection for the people and the region, perhaps because they reminded him of his own hardscrabble upbringing on a remote Mormon farm in Utah.

In the book’s introduction, William D. Sill describes Jensen as

similar in many ways to Leonardo Da Vinci…an artist and sculptor, engineer and mechanic, toolmaker, inventor, journeyman welder and machinist, longshoreman, lumberjack, smelter worker, gunsmith, mountain climber and rescuer, field geologist, and palaeontologist. He restored ancient musical instruments and then played them, including a lute from ancient Egypt.

Paraphrasing Lincoln, Sill tells us that “the world will probably little note nor long remember this remarkable man,” and indeed it seems strange that his diaries were published only by a small, regional museum in far-off Tasmania.

A very different Argentina is revealed to us in Luis Chiappe and Lowell Dingus’s Walking on Eggs, an account of three expeditions to Pata-gonia between 1997 and 2000 that resulted in the discovery of a vast dinosaur nesting site. There are still gauchos and asados and beautiful deserts, but gone is the isolated frontier life described so well by Jensen. And the fossil hunters themselves have changed. Instead of spending almost half a year at a stretch in the field, the contemporary fossil hunters cram their work into just a few weeks. They seem far busier and more focused than their predecessors, and are certainly less broadly inquiring.

In their opening chapter Chiappe and Dingus tell us that Patagonia is named for giants that were described by Magellan in his diary. They surmise,

In reality these people were of normal height. In all probability Magellan was simply trying to enhance his own image as a courageous explorer and legendary hero—as if being the leader of the first crew to sail completely around the world wasn’t enough.

This careless slander so enraged me that I almost threw Walking on Eggs into the fire. In fact, first, Magellan did not live to bask in the glory of the circumnavigation, dying in 1521 in the Philippines; and, second, none of his papers or those of the captains who succeeded him on the return voyage to Europe have ever come to light. It was of course Antonio Pigafetta, a volunteer on Magellan’s flagship Trinidad, who recorded the meeting with the “giants,” and who noted that one of them “was so tall that the tallest of us only came up to his waist.” Given the relative stature of seventeenth-century Europeans this is quite likely, and Pigafetta’s record as a whole is reliable.

Where it sticks to prehistory, Walking on Eggs is generally interesting and accurate (although it errs in noting that dinosaur eggs have been discovered in Australia). The great nesting site of the sauropods—which must have covered several square miles—indeed is an exciting discovery, opening a window onto the lost and almost unimaginable world of South America 80 million years ago. The continent was isolated then, and the last place on earth where the sauropods still dominated. The huge creatures congregated by the thousands, scraping out nests in the clay and sand up to four feet across, and depositing up to thirty-five eggs, five inches in diameter, in each. Chiappe and Dingus think that the parents largely abandoned these open nests to their fate, yet this seems unlikely to me. Surely the baking sun would have fried the eggs if they had. Instead I imagine the fifty-foot-long mothers standing by, fending off predators, and shading the clutch when necessary until the twelve-inch-long hatchlings emerged.

One chapter of Walking on Eggs is titled “Our Fifteen Minutes of Fame.” It documents the travails endured by the authors when, upon returning from Patagonia with news of their find, the media machine at the American Museum of Natural History cranked into action. Soon, images of the authors as courageous explorers and heroic discoverers of one of the greatest fossil finds of the century were being disseminated on Good Morning America, in The New York Times, Time, Newsweek, and National Geographic, among others. The book’s epilogue documents some of the fallout of all this attention. The site was raided by people wanting to make money from selling the by-now-famous dinosaur eggs.

Michael Novacek is provost of science at the American Museum of Natural History and Time Traveler is his autobiography. The first three chapters deal with juvenilia, and it is not until page 153 that he commences his doctoral studies in paleontology. Interspersed throughout this record of his early life Novacek presents vignettes of the geological history of various regions of the United States, and explanations of the evolution of a number of animal groups. He also provides masterly discourses on assorted dating methods and geological time.

Following graduation, Novacek’s career encompassed an astonishing variety of paleontological experience, from fieldwork in widely different time horizons and localities in North America to expeditions to South America, Yemen, and Mongolia. The book gives a clear picture of a life lived by one who has achieved the highest ambitions of a paleontologist. It also teaches us much about the state of paleontology today. Since Novacek is still relatively young and evidently very active, this must be regarded as only a first volume.

On the cusp of the twenty-first century the world was beginning to see dinosaurs as far more varied and complex than hitherto imagined, for in the preceding decades many major discoveries had challenged or broadened almost every preconception held about them. Few have contributed so significantly to that changing vision as the paleontological couple Tom Rich and Pat Vickers-Rich. Their Dinosaurs of Darkness leads us into the bizarre world of one of the most extreme regions inhabited by dinosaurs—the planet’s South Pole, which 115 million years ago lay over southeastern Australia. Then Australia was part of the supercontinent Gondwana, but a rift was already beginning to form, and it is in the sediments accumulated in this ancient valley that the record of past life was laid down.

The polar dinosaurs were a strange lot. Archaic species like a relative of the carnivore Allosaurus held out in this last, chilly redoubt, which it shared with the earliest ceratopsians (horned species such as Triceratops) and ornithomimids (ostrich-like dinosaurs), both of which would become dominant almost globally at a later date. Sauropods are strangely absent, but most abundant of all were the herbivorous, bipedal hypsilophodontids—chicken- to kangaroo-sized relatives of the Iguanodon.

It is difficult to imagine dinosaurs surviving through three freezing months of winter darkness, where the average annual average temperature was similar to that of Fairbanks, Alaska. The bones of most show signs of arrested growth, indicating that they may have hibernated, but those of the hypsilophodontids lack them. Were they active right through winter as their large eyes (adapted to seeing in gloom) suggest, or did they live for just a summer? The world of the polar dinosaurs abounds with such mysteries.

Just as remarkable are the Riches’ non-dinosaurian discoveries. They uncovered the remains of crocodile-sized, amphibian labyrinthodonts (which became extinct tens of millions of years earlier elsewhere), and hedgehog-like placental mammals. This last discovery raises the astonishing possibility that Australia, long thought of as the land of the marsupials, may in fact have been the birthplace of the world’s most successful mammals, the placentals, a group that includes human beings. Little wonder that this bizarre environment formed the basis of an entire episode of the BBC’s acclaimed series Walking with Dinosaurs.

After leaving the US in the 1960s, the Riches worked for twenty-three years in southeastern Australia, searching for the rocks that would yield the fossil treasure trove. One of the richest deposits was located in the most difficult position imaginable—at the base of cliffs on a shore platform raked by the turbulent Southern Ocean. It was here, in the soon-to-be-named Dinosaur Cove on Victoria’s Otway Coast, that the Riches determined to site their dinosaur mine.

Heavy machinery was carried by hand down the cliffs, and a sturdy metal portico was assembled at the head of the mine. The crew worked three shifts around the clock, until one night workers found the sea lapping around their ankles when it should have been ebbing. An emergency evacuation was ordered and when the crew returned in the morning they found everything gone. An immense storm surge had tossed the mining equipment, some of it weighing 300 kilograms, as if it were matchsticks. Even the heavy portico had vanished into the deep. Undeterred, work started again and eventually a true mine, extending twenty meters into the cliff, was made. Its excavation involved the use of explosives (sometimes as many as eighty sticks of gelignite) and a prodigious amount of sheer brute strength by an exceptionally dedicated volunteer crew of women and men. It seems miraculous that no one was killed over the decade that work was conducted there.

At the completion of work the tunnels were sealed and a 220-pound black granite monolith was set into the concrete, which stated that “significant fossils were discovered at this locality….” This done, Tom Rich “turned, took a few steps, and, looking out to sea, suddenly felt as if a tremendous weight, which he had not even been aware of and which had been there for years, was lifted from his shoulders.” The weight will probably not be off for long, however, for the Riches foreshadow plans for a dig in the dinosaur deposits found along the Colville River in Alaska. They reason that frozen sediment is safer to work in than slush, and so plan to work over winter in a tunnel in the permafrost. It seems that a whole new north polar world of dinosaurs beckons, which will be every bit as exciting as that of the south. There may be many new dinosaurs in our future.

  1. *

    Doubleday, 1980.