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History of paleontology

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History of paleontology

Duria Antiquior - A more Ancient Dorset is a watercolor painted in 1830 by the geologist Henry De la Beche based on fossils found by Mary Anning. The late 18th and early 19th century was a time of rapid and dramatic changes in ideas about the history of life on earth.

The history of geology and the effort to understand the history of the Earth itself.

In ancient times Middle Ages, fossils were discussed by the Persian naturalist, Ibn Sina (known as Avicenna in Europe), in The Book of Healing (1027), which proposed a theory of petrifying fluids that Albert of Saxony would elaborate on in the 14th century. The Chinese naturalist Shen Kuo (1031–1095) would propose a theory of climate change based on evidence from petrified bamboo.

In extinction and led to the emergence of paleontology, in association with comparative anatomy, as a scientific discipline. The expanding knowledge of the fossil record also played an increasing role in the development of geology, particularly stratigraphy.

In 1822 the word "paleontology" was invented by the editor of a French scientific journal to refer to the study of ancient living organisms through fossils, and the first half of the 19th century saw geological and paleontological activity become increasingly well organized with the growth of geologic societies and museums and an increasing number of professional geologists and fossil specialists. This contributed to a rapid increase in knowledge about the history of life on Earth, and progress towards definition of the geologic time scale largely based on fossil evidence. As knowledge of life's history continued to improve, it became increasingly obvious that there had been some kind of successive order to the development of life. This would encourage early evolutionary theories on the transmutation of species.[2] After Charles Darwin published Origin of Species in 1859, much of the focus of paleontology shifted to understanding evolutionary paths, including human evolution, and evolutionary theory.[2]

The last half of the 19th century saw a tremendous expansion in paleontological activity, especially in North America.[1] The trend continued in the 20th century with additional regions of the Earth being opened to systematic fossil collection, as demonstrated by a series of important discoveries in China near the end of the 20th century. Many transitional fossils have been discovered, and there is now considered to be abundant evidence of how all classes of vertebrates are related, much of it in the form of transitional fossils.[3] The last few decades of the 20th century saw a renewed interest in mass extinctions and their role in the evolution of life on Earth.[4] There was also a renewed interest in the Cambrian explosion that saw the development of the body plans of most animal phyla. The discovery of fossils of the Ediacaran biota and developments in paleobiology extended knowledge about the history of life back far before the Cambrian.


  • Prior to the 17th century 1
  • 17th century 2
  • 18th century 3
  • Early to mid-19th century 4
    • The age of reptiles 4.1
    • Paleobotany and the origin of the word paleontology 4.2
    • Catastrophism, uniformitarianism and the fossil record 4.3
    • Transmutation of species and the fossil record 4.4
    • Geological time scale and the history of life 4.5
    • Expansion and professionalization of geology and paleontology 4.6
  • Late 19th century 5
    • Evolution 5.1
    • Developments in North America 5.2
  • Overview of developments in the 20th century 6
    • Developments in geology 6.1
    • Geographical expansion of paleontology 6.2
    • Mass extinctions 6.3
    • Evolutionary paths and theory 6.4
    • Cambrian explosion 6.5
    • Pre-Cambrian fossils 6.6
  • See also 7
  • Notes 8
  • References 9
  • External links 10

Prior to the 17th century

As early as the 6th century BC, the Greek philosopher Xenophanes of Colophon (570-480 BC) recognized that some fossil shells were remains of shellfish, which he used to argue that what was at the time dry land was once under the sea.[5] Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), in an unpublished notebook, also concluded that some fossil sea shells were the remains of shellfish. However, in both cases, the fossils were complete remains of shellfish species that closely resembled living species, and were therefore easy to classify.[6]

In 1027, the Persian naturalist, Ibn Sina (known as Avicenna in Europe), proposed an explanation of how the stoniness of fossils was caused in The Book of Healing.[1] He modified an idea of Aristotle's, which explained it in terms of vaporous exhalations. Ibn Sina modified this into the theory of petrifying fluids (succus lapidificatus), which was elaborated on by Albert of Saxony in the 14th century and was accepted in some form by most naturalists by the 16th century.[7]

Shen Kuo (Chinese: 沈括) (1031–1095) of the Song Dynasty used marine fossils found in the Taihang Mountains to infer the existence of geological processes such as geomorphology and the shifting of seashores over time.[8] Using his observation of preserved petrified bamboos found underground in Yan'an, Shanbei region, Shaanxi province, he argued for a theory of gradual climate change, since Shaanxi was part of a dry climate zone that did not support a habitat for the growth of bamboos.[9]

As a result of a new emphasis on observing, classifying, and cataloging nature, 16th century natural philosophers in Europe began to establish extensive Conrad Gesner published a 1565 work on fossils that contained one of the first detailed descriptions of such a cabinet and collection. The collection belonged to a member of the extensive network of correspondents that Gesner drew on for his works. Such informal correspondence networks among natural philosophers and collectors became increasingly important during the course of the 16th century and were direct forerunners of the scientific societies that would begin to form in the 17th century. These cabinet collections and correspondence networks played an important role in the development of natural philosophy.[10]

However, most 16th-century Europeans did not recognize that

  • History of paleontology
  • History of palaeoentomology in Russia
  • Paleontology Milestones: Famous Paleontologists and Notable Contributions
  • History of Paleontology by P.D. Polly and R.L. Spang

External links

  • Bowler, Peter J.; Iwan Rhys Morus (2005). Making Modern Science. The University of Chicago Press.  
  • Desmond, Adrian (1975). "The Discovery of Marine Transgressions and the Explanation of Fossils in Antiquity". American Journal of Science, Volume 275.
  • McGowan, Christopher (2001). The Dragon Seekers. Persus Publishing.  
  • Everhart, Michael J. (2005). Oceans of Kansas: A Natural History of the Western Interior Sea. Indiana University Press.  
  • Greene, Marjorie; David Depew (2004). The Philosophy of Biology:An Episodic History. Cambridge University Press.  
  • Robert Hooke (1665) Micrographia The Royal Society
  • Palmer, Douglas (2005) Earth Time: Exploring the Deep Past from Victorian England to the Grand Canyon. Wiley, Chichester. ISBN 978-0-470-02221-4
  • Zittel, Karl Alfred von (1901). History of geology and palaentology to the end of the Nineteenth Century. Charles Scribner's Sons, London. 


  1. ^ a b c Garwood, Russell J. (2012). "Life as a palaeontologist: Palaeontology for dummies, Part 2". Palaeontology Online 4 (2): 1–1o. Retrieved July 29, 2015. 
  2. ^ a b Buckland W & Gould SJ (1980). Geology and Mineralogy Considered With Reference to Natural Theology (History of Paleontology). Ayer Company Publishing.  
  3. ^ Prothero, D (2008-02-27). "Evolution: What missing link?" (2645).  
  4. ^ Bowler Evolution: The History of an Idea pp. 351-352
  5. ^ Desmond p. 692-697.
  6. ^ Rudwick The Meaning of Fossils p. 39
  7. ^ Rudwick The Meaning of Fossils p. 24
  8. ^ Shen Kuo,Mengxi Bitan (梦溪笔谈; Dream Pool Essays) (1088)
  9. ^ Needham, Volume 3, p. 614.
  10. ^ Rudwick The Meaning of Fossils pp. 9-17
  11. ^ Rudwick The Meaning of Fossils pp. 23-33
  12. ^ Rudwick The Meaning of Fossils pp. 33-36
  13. ^ Hooke Micrographia observation XVII
  14. ^ a b Bowler The Earth Encompassed (1992) pp. 118-119
  15. ^ Rudwick The Meaning of Fossils pp 72-73
  16. ^ Rudwick The Meaning of Fossils pp 61-65
  17. ^ Bowler The Earth Encompassed (1992) p. 117
  18. ^ McGowan the dragon seekers pp. 3-4
  19. ^ Rudwick Georges Cuvier, Fossil Bones and Geological Catastrophes p. 158
  20. ^ McGowan pp. 11-27
  21. ^ Rudwick, Martin Worlds Before Adam: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Reform (2008) pp. 154-155.
  22. ^ Cadbury, Deborah The Dinosaur Hunters (2000) pp. 171-175.
  23. ^ McGowan p. 176
  24. ^ McGowan pp. 70-87
  25. ^ McGowan p. 109
  26. ^ McGowan pp. 78-79
  27. ^ Rudwick The Meaning of Fossils pp. 145-147
  28. ^ Bowler The Earth Encompassed (1992)
  29. ^ Rudwick Worlds before Adam p. 48
  30. ^ Rudwick The Meaning of Fossils pp. 124-125
  31. ^ Rudwick The Meaning of Fossils pp. 156-157
  32. ^ Rudwick The Meaning of Fossils pp. 133-136
  33. ^ McGowan pp. 93-95
  34. ^ a b McGowan pp. 100-103
  35. ^ Rudwick The Meaning of Fossils pp. 178-184
  36. ^ McGowan pp. 100
  37. ^ Rudwick The Meaning of Fossils p. 119
  38. ^ McGowan p. 8
  39. ^ McGowan pp. 188-191
  40. ^ Larson p. 73
  41. ^ Larson p. 44
  42. ^ Ruckwick The Meaning of fossils pp. 206-207
  43. ^ Larson p. 51
  44. ^ Rudwick The Great Devonian Controversy p. 94
  45. ^ Larson pp. 36-37
  46. ^ Rudwick The Meaning of Fossils p. 213
  47. ^ Rudwick The Meaning of Fossils pp. 200-201
  48. ^ Greene and Depew The Philosophy of Biology pp. 128-130
  49. ^ Bowler and Morus Making Modern Science pp. 168-169
  50. ^ Bowler Evolution: The History of an Idea p. 150
  51. ^ Larson Evolution p. 139
  52. ^ Larson pp. 126-127
  53. ^ Everhart Oceans of Kansas p. 17
  54. ^ The Bone Wars. From Wyoming Tales and Trails Wyoming Tales and Trails.
  55. ^ McGowan p. 105
  56. ^ Bowler p. 349
  57. ^ Alvarez, LW, Alvarez, W, Asaro, F, and Michel, HV (1980). "Extraterrestrial cause for the Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction". Science 208 (4448): 1095–1108.  
  58. ^ Garwin, Laura; Tim Lincoln. "A Century of Nature: Twenty-One Discoveries that Changed Science and the World". University of Chicago Press. pp. 3–9. Retrieved 2009-07-19. 
  59. ^ Bowler p. 337
  60. ^ Eldredge, Niles and S. J. Gould (1972). "Punctuated equilibria: an alternative to phyletic gradualism" In T.J.M. Schopf, ed., Models in Paleobiology. San Francisco: Freeman Cooper. pp. 82-115. Reprinted in N. Eldredge Time frames. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1985. Available here [2].
  61. ^  
  62. ^ Schopf, J. William. "Solution to Darwin's dilemma: Discovery of the missing Precambrian record of life". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Retrieved 2007-11-15. 


See also

Prior to 1950 there was no widely accepted fossil evidence of life before the Cambrian period. When microfossils of the bacteria that built them, and the publication of a series of papers by the Soviet scientist Boris Vasil'evich Timofeev announcing the discovery of microscopic fossil spores in pre-Cambrian sediments. A key breakthrough would come when Martin Glaessner would show that fossils of soft bodied animals discovered by Reginald Sprigg during the late 1940s in the Ediacaran hills of Australia were in fact pre-Cambrian not early Cambrian as Sprigg had originally believed, making the Ediacaran biota the oldest animals known. By the end of the 20th century, paleobiology had established that the history of life extended back at least 3.5 billion years.[62]

Photo shows a Spriggina fossil from the Ediacaran.

Pre-Cambrian fossils

One area of paleontology that has seen a lot of activity during the 1980s, 1990s, and beyond is the study of the Cambrian explosion during which many of the various phyla of animals with their distinctive body plans first appear. The well-known Burgess Shale Cambrian fossil site was found in 1909 by Charles Doolittle Walcott, and another important site in Chengjiang China was found in 1912. However, new analysis in the 1980s by Harry B. Whittington, Derek Briggs, Simon Conway Morris and others sparked a renewed interest and a burst of activity including discovery of an important new fossil site, Sirius Passet, in Greenland, and the publication of a popular and controversial book, Wonderful Life by Stephen Jay Gould in 1989.[61]

Photo shows a complete Anomalocaris fossil from the Burgess shale.

Cambrian explosion

The results of paleontology have also contributed to the development of evolutionary theory. In 1944 natural selection and genetic drift rather than the linear trends predicted by earlier advocates of neo-Lamarckism and orthogenesis. This integrated paleontology into the modern evolutionary synthesis.[59] In 1972 Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould used fossil evidence to advocate the theory of punctuated equilibrium, which maintains that evolution is characterized by long periods of relative stasis and much shorter periods of relatively rapid change.[60]

Throughout the 20th century new fossil finds continued to contribute to understanding the paths taken by evolution. Examples include major taxonomic transitions such as finds in Greenland, starting in the 1930s (with more major finds in the 1980s), of fossils illustrating the evolution of tetrapods from fish, and fossils in China during the 1990s that shed light on the dinosaur-bird relationship. Other events that have attracted considerable attention have included the discovery of a series of fossils in Pakistan that have shed light on whale evolution, and most famously of all a series of finds throughout the 20th century in Africa (starting with Taung child in 1924[58]) and elsewhere have helped illuminate the course of human evolution. Increasingly, at the end of the 20th century, the results of paleontology and molecular biology were being brought together to reveal detailed phylogenetic trees.

Photo shows the fossils of Taung child discovered in South Africa in 1924.

Evolutionary paths and theory

The 20th century saw a major renewal of interest in mass extinction events and their effect on the course of the history of life. This was particularly true after 1980 when Luis and Walter Alvarez put forward the Alvarez hypothesis claiming that an impact event caused the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event, which killed off the non-avian dinosaurs along with many other living things.[57] Also in the early 1980s Jack Sepkoski and David M. Raup published papers with statistical analysis of the fossil record of marine invertebrates that revealed a pattern (possibly cyclical) of repeated mass extinctions with significant implications for the evolutionary history of life.

Mass extinctions

During the 20th century, paleontological exploration intensified everywhere and ceased to be a largely European and North American activity. In the 135 years between Buckland's first discovery and 1969 a total of 170 dinosaur genera were known. In the 25 years after 1969 that number increased to 315. Much of this increase was due to the examination of new rock exposures, particularly in previously little-explored areas in South America and Africa.[55] Near the end of the 20th century the opening of China to systematic exploration for fossils has yielded a wealth of material on dinosaurs and the origin of birds and mammals.[56]

Geographical expansion of paleontology

Two 20th century developments in geology had a big effect on paleontology. The first was the development of radiometric dating, which allowed absolute dates to be assigned to the geologic timescale. The second was the theory of plate tectonics, which helped make sense of the geographical distribution of ancient life.

Developments in geology

Overview of developments in the 20th century

A major development in the second half of the 19th century was a rapid expansion of paleontology in North America. In 1858 Joseph Leidy described a Hadrosaurus skeleton, which was the first North American dinosaur to be described from good remains. However, it was the massive westward expansion of railroads, military bases, and settlements into Kansas and other parts of the Western United States following the American Civil War that really fueled the expansion of fossil collection.[53] The result was an increased understanding of the natural history of North America, including the discovery of the Western Interior Sea that had covered Kansas and much of the rest of the Midwestern United States during parts of the Cretaceous, the discovery of several important fossils of primitive birds and horses, and the discovery of a number of new dinosaur genera including Allosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Triceratops. Much of this activity was part of a fierce personal and professional rivalry between two men, Othniel Marsh, and Edward Cope, which has become known as the Bone Wars.[54]

Developments in North America

There was also great interest in human evolution. Neanderthal fossils were discovered in 1856, but at the time it was not clear that they represented a different species from modern humans. Eugene Dubois created a sensation with his discovery of Java Man, the first fossil evidence of a species that seemed clearly intermediate between humans and apes, in 1891.

This diagram by O.C. Marsh of the evolution of horse feet and teeth over time was reproduced in T.H Huxley's 1876 book, Professor Huxley in America.

's publication of the On the Origin of Species in 1859 was a watershed event in all the life sciences, especially paleontology. Fossils had played a role in the development of Darwin's theory. In particular he had been impressed by fossils he had collected in South America during the voyage of the Beagle of giant armadillos, giant sloths, and what at the time he thought were giant llamas that seemed to be related to species still living on the continent in modern times.[50] The scientific debate that started immediately after the publication of Origin led to a concerted effort to look for transitional fossils and other evidence of evolution in the fossil record. There were two areas where early success attracted considerable public attention, the transition between reptiles and birds, and the evolution of the modern single-toed horse.[51] In 1861 the first specimen of Archaeopteryx, an animal with both teeth and feathers and a mix of other reptilian and avian features, was discovered in a limestone quarry in Bavaria and described by Richard Owen. Another would be found in the late 1870s and put on display at a Museum in Berlin in 1881. Other primitive toothed birds were found by Othniel Marsh in Kansas in 1872. Marsh also discovered fossils of several primitive horses in the Western United States that helped trace the evolution of the horse from the small 5-toed Hyracotherium of the Eocene to the much larger single-toed modern horses of the genus Equus. Thomas Huxley would make extensive use of both the horse and bird fossils in his advocacy of evolution. Acceptance of evolution occurred rapidly in scientific circles, but acceptance of Darwin's proposed mechanism of natural selection as the driving force behind it was much less universal. In particular some paleontologists such as Edward Drinker Cope and Henry Fairfield Osborn preferred alternatives such as neo-Lamarckism, the inheritance of characteristics acquired during life, and orthogenesis, an innate drive to change in a particular direction, to explain what they perceived as linear trends in evolution.[52]

Charles Darwin
This photo of the second Archaeopteryx skeleton to be found was taken in 1881 at the Humboldt Museum in Berlin.


Late 19th century

Another important factor was the development in the late 18th and early 19th centuries of museums with large natural history collections. These museums received specimens from collectors around the world and served as centers for the study of comparative anatomy and morphology. These disciplines played key roles in the development of a more technically sophisticated form of natural history. One of the first and most important examples was the Museum of Natural History in Paris, which was at the center of many of the developments in natural history during the first decades of the 19th century. It was founded in 1793 by an act of the French National Assembly, and was based on an extensive royal collection plus the private collections of aristocrats confiscated during the French revolution, and expanded by material seized in French military conquests during the Napoleonic Wars. The Paris museum was the professional base for Cuvier, and his professional rival Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. The English anatomists Robert Grant and Richard Owen both spent time studying there. Owen would go on to become the leading British morphologist while working at the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons.[48][49]

This rapid progress in geology and paleontology during the 1830s and 1840s was aided by a growing international network of geologists and fossil specialists whose work was organized and reviewed by an increasing number of geological societies. Many of these geologists and paleontologists were now paid professionals working for universities, museums and government geological surveys. The relatively high level of public support for the earth sciences was due to their cultural impact, and their proven economic value in helping to exploit mineral resources such as coal.[47]

Expansion and professionalization of geology and paleontology

Geologists such as Adam Sedgwick, and Roderick Murchison continued, in the course of disputes such as The Great Devonian Controversy, to make advances in stratigraphy. They described new geological epochs such as the Cambrian, the Silurian, the Devonian, and the Permian. Increasingly, such progress in stratigraphy depended on the opinions of experts with specialized knowledge of particular types of fossils such as William Lonsdale (fossil corals), and John Lindley (fossil plants) who both played a role in the Devonian controversy and its resolution.[44] By the early 1840s much of the geologic time scale had been developed. In 1841, John Phillips formally divided the geologic column into three major eras, the Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic, based on sharp breaks in the fossil record.[45] He identified the three periods of the Mesozoic era and all the periods of the Paleozoic era except the Ordovician. His definition of the geological time scale is still used today.[46] It remained a relative time scale with no method of assigning any of the periods' absolute dates. It was understood that not only had there been an "age of reptiles" preceding the current "age of mammals", but there had been a time (during the Cambrian and the Silurian) when life had been restricted to the sea, and a time (prior to the Devonian) when invertebrates had been the largest and most complex forms of animal life.

Geological time scale and the history of life

This diagram of the geologic time scale from an 1861 book by Richard Owen shows the appearance of major animal types.

Jean Baptiste Lamarck used fossils in his arguments for his theory of the transmutation of species in the early 19th century.[37] Fossil finds, and the emerging evidence that life had changed over time, fueled speculation on this topic during the next few decades.[38] Robert Chambers used fossil evidence in his 1844 popular science book Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, which advocated an evolutionary origin for the cosmos as well as for life on earth. Like Lamarck's theory it maintained that life had progressed from the simple to the complex.[39] These early evolutionary ideas were widely discussed in scientific circles but were not accepted into the scientific mainstream.[40] Many of the critics of transmutational ideas used fossil evidence in their arguments. In the same paper that coined the term dinosaur Richard Owen pointed out that dinosaurs were at least as sophisticated and complex as modern reptiles, which he claimed contradicted transmutational theories.[41] Hugh Miller would make a similar argument, pointing out that the fossil fish found in the Old Red Sandstone formation were fully as complex as any later fish, and not the primitive forms alleged by Vestiges.[42] While these early evolutionary theories failed to become accepted as mainstream science, the debates over them would help pave the way for the acceptance of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection a few years later.[43]

Transmutation of species and the fossil record

[36] Lyell was successful in convincing geologists of the idea that the geological features of the earth were largely due to the action of the same geologic forces that could be observed in the present day, acting over an extended period of time. He was not successful in gaining support for his view of the fossil record, which he believed did not support a theory of directional succession.[35] strata showed a mixture of extinct and still surviving species, which he said showed that extinction occurred piecemeal rather than as a result of catastrophic events.Pleistocene Also Lyell pointed to the Stonesfield mammal as evidence that mammals had not necessarily been preceded by reptiles, and to the fact that certain [34] Partly in response to what he saw as unsound and unscientific speculations by

In Cuvier's landmark 1796 paper on living and fossil elephants, he referred to a single catastrophe that destroyed life to be replaced by the current forms. As a result of his studies of extinct mammals, he realized that animals such as Palaeotherium had lived before the time of the mammoths, which led him to write in terms of multiple geological catastrophes that had wiped out a series of successive faunas.[30] By 1830, a scientific consensus had formed around his ideas as a result of paleobotany and the dinosaur and marine reptile discoveries in Britain.[31] In Great Britain, where natural theology was very influential in the early 19th century, a group of geologists that included Buckland, and Robert Jameson insisted on explicitly linking the most recent of Cuvier's catastrophes to the biblical flood. Catastrophism had a religious overtone in Britain that was absent elsewhere.[32]

Catastrophism, uniformitarianism and the fossil record

The increasing attention being paid to fossil plants in the first decades of the 19th century would trigger a significant change in the terminology for the study of past life. The editor of the influential French scientific journal, Journal de Physique, a student of Cuvier's named Henri Marie Ducrotay de Blainville, coined the term "paleozoologie" in 1817 to refer to the work Cuvier and others were doing to reconstruct extinct animals from fossil bones. However, Blainville began looking for a term that could refer to the study of both fossil animal and plant remains. After trying some unsuccessful alternatives, he hit on "palaeontologie" in 1822. Blainville's term for the study of the fossilized organisms quickly became popular and was anglicized into "paleontology".[29]

In 1828 Alexandre Brongniart's son, the botanist Adolphe Brongniart, published the introduction to a longer work on the history of fossil plants. Adolphe Brongniart concluded that the history of plants could roughly be divided into four parts. The first period was characterized by cryptogams. The second period was characterized by the appearance of the conifers. The third period brought emergence of the cycads, and the fourth by the development of the flowering plants (such as the dicotyledons). The transitions between each of these periods was marked by sharp discontinuities in the fossil record, with more gradual changes within the periods. Brongniart's work is the foundation of paleobotany and reinforced the theory that life on earth had a long and complex history, and different groups of plants and animals made their appearances in successive order.[27] It also supported the idea that the Earth's climate had changed over time as Brogniart concluded that plant fossils showed that during the Carboniferous the climate of Northern Europe must have been tropical.[28]

Paleobotany and the origin of the word paleontology

This evidence that giant reptiles had lived on Earth in the past caused great excitement in scientific circles,[24] and even among some segments of the general public.[25] Buckland did describe the jaw of a small primitive mammal, Phascolotherium, that was found in the same strata as Megalosaurus. This discovery, known as the Stonesfield mammal, was a much discussed anomaly. Cuvier at first thought it was a marsupial, but Buckland later realized it was a primitive placental mammal. Due to its small size and primitive nature, Buckland did not believe it invalidated the overall pattern of an age of reptiles, when the largest and most conspicuous animals had been reptiles rather than mammals.[26]

This illustration of the fossil jaw of the Stonesfield mammal is from Gideon Mantell's 1848 book Wonders of Geology.

In 1824, Buckland found and described a lower jaw from Jurassic deposits from Stonesfield. He determined that the bone belonged to a carnivorous land-dwelling reptile he called Megalosaurus. That same year Gideon Mantell realized that some large teeth he had found in 1822, in Cretaceous rocks from Tilgate, belonged to a giant herbivorous land-dwelling reptile. He called it Iguanodon, because the teeth resembled those of an iguana. All of this led Mantell to publish an influential paper in 1831 entitled "The Age of Reptiles" in which he summarized the evidence for there having been an extended time during which the earth had teemed with large reptiles, and he divided that era, based in what rock strata different types of reptiles first appeared, into three intervals that anticipated the modern periods of the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous.[22] In 1832 Mantell would find, in Tilgate, a partial skeleton of an armored reptile he would call Hylaeosaurus. In 1841 the English anatomist Richard Owen would create a new order of reptiles, which he called Dinosauria, for Megalosaurus, Iguanodon, and Hylaeosaurus.[23]

In 1808, Cuvier identified a fossil found in Maastricht as a giant marine reptile that would later be named Mosasaurus. He also identified, from a drawing, another fossil found in Bavaria as a flying reptile and named it Pterodactylus. He speculated, based on the strata in which these fossils were found, that large reptiles had lived prior to what he was calling "the age of mammals".[19] Cuvier's speculation would be supported by a series of finds that would be made in Great Britain over the course of the next two decades. Mary Anning, a professional fossil collector since age eleven, collected the fossils of a number of marine reptiles from the Jurassic marine strata at Lyme Regis. These included the first ichthyosaur skeleton to be recognized as such, which was collected in 1811, and the first two plesiosaur skeletons ever found in 1821 and 1823. Many of her discoveries would be described scientifically by the geologists William Conybeare, Henry De la Beche, and William Buckland.[20] It was Anning who observed that stony objects known as "bezoar stones" were often found in the abdominal region of ichthyosaur skeletons, and she noted that if such stones were broken open they often contained fossilized fish bones and scales as well as sometimes bones from small ichthyosaurs. This led her to suggest to Buckland that they were fossilized feces, which he named coprolites, and which he used to better understand ancient food chains.[21]

This illustration of fossil Iguanodon teeth with a modern iguana jaw for comparison is from Mantell's 1825 paper describing Iguanodon.

The age of reptiles

Early to mid-19th century

In a pioneering application of stratigraphy, William Smith, a surveyor and mining engineer, made extensive use of fossils to help correlate rock strata in different locations. He created the first geological map of England during the late 1790s and early 19th century. He established the principle of faunal succession, the idea that each strata of sedimentary rock would contain particular types of fossils, and that these would succeed one another in a predictable way even in widely separated geologic formations. At the same time, Cuvier and Alexandre Brongniart, an instructor at the Paris school of mine engineering, used similar methods in an influential study of the geology of the region around Paris.

This illustration is from William Smith's 1815 work Strata by Organized Fossils.

In 1796 wooly rhinoceros were not the same species as the elephants and rhinoceros currently living in the tropics, their fossils could not be used as evidence for a cooling earth.

In his 1778 work Epochs of Nature elephants and rhinoceros in northern Europe, as evidence for the theory that the earth had started out much warmer than it currently was and had been gradually cooling.

A drawing comparing jaws was added in 1799 when Cuvier's 1796 presentation on living and fossil elephants was published.

18th century

Despite the considerable influence of Forerunner, naturalists such as extinction, which they found difficult to accept for philosophical and theological reasons.[16] In 1695 Ray wrote to the Welsh naturalist Edward Lluyd complaining of such views: "... there follows such a train of consequences, as seem to shock the Scripture-History of the novity of the World; at least they overthrow the opinion received, & not without good reason, among Divines and Philosophers, that since the first Creation there have been no species of Animals or Vegetables lost, no new ones produced."[17]

[15] In 1667

Hooke was prepared to accept the possibility that some such fossils represented species that had become extinct, possibly in past geological catastrophes.[14]

This illustration from Steno's 1667 paper shows a shark head and its teeth along with a fossil tooth for comparison.
...if the finding of Coines, Medals, Urnes, and other Monuments of famous persons, or Towns, or Utensils, be admitted for unquestionable Proofs,that such Persons or things have, in former times had a being, certainly those Petrifactions may be allowed to be of equal Validity and Evidence, that there have formerly been such Vegetables or Animals... and are true universal Characters legible to all rational Men.[14]

During the Age of Reason, fundamental changes in natural philosophy were reflected in the analysis of fossils. In 1665 Athanasius Kircher attributed giant bones to extinct races of giant humans in his Mundus subterraneus. In the same year Robert Hooke published Micrographia, an illustrated collection of his observations with a microscope. One of these observations was entitled "Of Petrify'd wood, and other Petrify'd bodies", which included a comparison between petrified and ordinary wood. He concluded that petrified wood was ordinary wood that had been soaked with "water impregnated with stony and earthy particles". He then suggested that several kinds of fossil sea shells were formed from ordinary shells by a similar process. He argued against the prevalent view that such objects were "Stones form'd by some extraordinary Plastick virtue latent in the Earth itself".[13] Hooke believed that fossils provided evidence about the history of life on Earth writing in 1668:

Johann Jakob Scheuchzer tried to explain fossils using Biblical floods in his Herbarium of the Deluge (1709)

17th century


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