The Birth of Dinosaurs: Richard Owen and Dinosauria

Humans have been encountering the fossilized remains of dinosaurs for millennia. The myth of the dragon, for instance, may be based on discoveries of dinosaur fossils. As an example, Chinese historian, Chang Qu mislabeled such a fossil as a dragon in the 4th century B.C.E.

The concept of dinosaurs as a group, however, occurred much more recently…in the nineteenth century, in fact.

The first published description of what is now known to be a dinosaur bone (but was thought to be the thighbone of a giant human at the time) occurred in the seventeenth century. The early nineteenth century saw the first scientifically named dinosaurs, including Megalosaurus and Iguanodon. But the relationship between these extinct giants – as dinosaurs – was not uncovered until the 1840s.

English biologist, comparative anatomist and paleontologist Richard Owen conducted extensive research on fossils during his career. He is perhaps most famous for being the first person to introduce the concept of dinosaurs as a group.

The name Dinosauria is first published in Owen’s Report on British Fossil Reptiles, which was published in 1842 as part of the Report from the 11th meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.  Owen used three genera to define his dinosaurs: the carnivorous Megalosaurus, the herbivorous Iguanodon, and armored Hylaeosaurus.

Owen was fascinated by the specimens his peers had discovered. He examined William Buckland’s Megalosaurus specimens at Oxford and Gideon Mantell’s Iguanodon and Hylaeosaurus specimens housed in the British Museum. From these, and examinations of other collections (most notably a sacrum from an Iguanodon in the collection of fossil collector William Devonshire Saull that likely first inspired Owen’s discovery), Owen determined that these three animals shared unique anatomical features that united them together while also separating them from other known groups. It was the fusion of five vertebrae at the base of the spine, observed in some of the Megalosaurus and Iguanodon fossils that Owen consulted and inferred in the Hylaeosaurus fragments – a feature unknown in other reptiles – that fueled Owen’s confidence in his new group.

The realization of this relationship among these specimens was Owen’s chief contribution to the field of Dinosaur research. It was a connection other paleontologists of the time had not uncovered. Thus, on the basis of this research and with the publication of his report in 1842, Richard Owen erected the clade Dinosauria and kindled a human love affair with dinosaurs that lasts to this day.

Owen’s chief memoirs, particularly those relating to the relationship between reptiles and extinct forms, were republished as a connected series in his History of British Fossil Reptiles (4 vols. London 1849–1884).

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Grace Costantino served as the Outreach and Communication Manager for the Biodiversity Heritage Library from 2014 to 2021. In this capacity, she developed and managed BHL's communication strategy, oversaw social media initiatives, and engaged with the public to excite audiences about the wealth of biodiversity heritage available in BHL. Prior to her role as Outreach and Communication Manager, Grace served as the Digital Collections Librarian for Smithsonian Libraries and as the Program Manager for BHL.