Dinner in the dinosaur's belly and the rising prominence of paleontology

24/06/2021
The dinner and the rise to fame of paleontology. Image: El Tlacuache
The dinner and the rise to fame of paleontology. Image: El Tlacuache

On December 31, 1853, a dinner was held where various characters of the English elite, both scientific, intellectual, and social, met. The unusual thing about it, and why it has gone down in history, is that besides being held in the belly of a dinosaur, it also served to introduce paleontology to society and popularize its researchers and their findings.

The emergence of a famous term

The term dinosaur, Dinosauria in academic Greek, was coined in 1842 by the naturalist Richard Owen, who was in charge of the Natural History Department of the British Museum, and a renowned naturalist, anatomist, and geologist. The term means "terrible lizard" and this allowed him to group together a series of recent finds of fossil animals that, because of their large size and anatomical characteristics, were very different from known animal forms, both present and extinct, including at that time the first three dinosaurs described in the scientific literature: Megalosaurus, Iguanodon, and Hylaeosaurus.

We now know that the original term "lizard" is somewhat inaccurate, since they comprise reptiles with great diversity. Now historical-paleontological research has determined that several specimens described in the 17th and 18th centuries probably belonged to dinosaurs, but at that time they were assigned as bones of giants, there was even a discipline called gigantology; or else they were considered to be dragons, fish, mammals, all of them of great size.

That is why the first dinosaur described was that of William Buckland, a clergyman who had specialized in mineralogy and geology, who studied some skeletal remains from the locality of Stonesfield, attributed to the Jurassic period, among them was a jaw with teeth in place, however, their morphology did not correspond to mammals or crocodiles, they were more similar to those of a reptile called varano, but much larger. From this, he concluded that they belonged to a giant reptile, which must have measured about 12 meters in length, so he called it in Latin Megalosaurus. His conclusions were presented at a celebrated session of the Geological Society in 1824 and became a scientific reference, reinforcing Buckland's fame as a naturalist.

The serendipitous discovery of the iguanodon

The other character in our story was an English country doctor, Gideon A. Mantell, who took advantage of his visits to the farmers in various localities in the Sussex region to check the deposits and quarries he found along the way, which allowed him to develop both his knowledge of fossils and to acquire a growing collection. In his travels through the region, he was often accompanied by his wife MaryAnn Mantell, who also acquired skills in identifying fossil materials. It is said that while Gideon was treating a patient, she found a fossil in limestone, a tooth with brown enamel.

Gideon began to study the tooth, and several more fragments were found in the same region. Among its characteristics was that it showed wear typical of herbivorous organisms, but it had reptilian characteristics. This was unknown at the time. Mantell turned to Buckland for help but did not get a clear answer. Charles Lyell, another important English naturalist, traveled to Paris to visit Georges Cuvier, who told him that perhaps they were from a rhinoceros, but he also told him that with the available elements and the fragmentary nature of the materials, it was not possible to reach a more solid conclusion, which has been evidenced as a scientific protocol that to date continues to be developed in paleontology, i.e., no judgments can be ventured if there is no contrast against the most solid evidence. Cuvier, in the end, encouraged him to continue his research.

Mantell finally decided to go in 1824 to the Hunterian Museum, one of the main galleries of comparative anatomy in England, where he set to work to review the largest number of specimens of current reptiles, there he discovered that the most similar was the teeth of an iguana, only, amplified many times more; With that certainty, he decided to call it Iguanodon (iguanodon tooth) and presented it at a conference of the Royal Scientific Society in 1825, which was a great success, where both Mantell and the specimen acquired fame beyond academic circles, especially for the estimated size of the specimen, between 60 and 70 meters in length, half of them occupied by the tail, and later other pieces were found, including a conical bone, which was assumed to be a nasal horn, and so it was integrated into the reproductions. It is now known to be a spur of the first toe of the foreleg.

The first major effort to disclose paleontology

Richard Owen was an important naturalist, who developed diverse studies, which even brought him into contact with the academics of the Mexican Society of Natural History and, above all, with Charles Darwin, the creator of the theory of natural selection. A personage with great academic and social influence.

In 1851 the First World's Fair was held, where advances in science, technology, industry, and the arts were presented. One of the emblematic buildings that was commissioned was the so-called Crystal Palace, which housed the fair, which was later moved to another area in London, and was used as a museum of art and science. Queen Victoria's husband, aware of the paleontological findings, suggested that full-scale reproductions of specimens of extinct fauna, especially dinosaurs, be made.

This commission fell to Richard Owen and Benjamin Waterhouse, the latter being an artist, painter, and sculptor, already a fan of paleontology. The two formed a team, with Owens establishing the academic interpretation and Waterhouse illustrating it. The process was lengthy and complex, sketches were made, small models were modeled and then clay molds were made, and with the real scale, from which cement molds were made with a core of iron, bricks, and rocks. The statues were finally painted and distributed around the Crystal Palace in three islands that simulated a time scale, 15 were built, including mostly dinosaurs, but also birds and extinct mammals.

The dinner and the growing fame of paleontology

The work of elaboration of the statues was becoming of public interest, in such a way that on December 31, 1853, an elegant dinner was convened, organized by Waterhouse and Owen, and attended by 21 people that included the investors of the Crystal Palace, newspaper editors, and other academics, presided by blankets that paid homage to Cuvier, Mantell, Buckland, and Owen himself, who presided over the dinner from the head of the mold. Most interestingly, the table where they sat was inside the Iguanodon cast, which was selected for being the largest of all.

Press reports note that it was a very lively event and that the attendees listened to Owen and Waterhouse's detailed explanations, but that by midnight the joint shouts of celebration for the success of the meeting and the forthcoming opening of the first public exhibition of this genus were such that it sounded like the dinosaur itself roaring to life.

On June 10, 1854, the Crystal Palace was inaugurated in its new location and with the sculptures finished, about 40 thousand people attended the event. The chronicles tell of the amazement and expectation at the size and fierceness with which the statues were represented, but that did not stop children from flocking to the event, and adults from buying prints and various reproductions.

Today, the sculptures continue to amaze visitors, they have become protected monuments, various activities take place: conferences, dinosaur day is celebrated, meetings with professionals, in short, where the 15 sculptures continue to play an educational role and above all awaken the imagination about a past that paleontology has allowed us to get to know.

By Eduardo Corona Martínez, Source: INAH Morelos