1977: Mantell is a major figure in the history of dinosaur discovery, but ...

Updated: Jul 12

Illustrated London news 1 December 1977


The Cuckfield dinosaur

From Professor W.A.S. Sarjeant

Dear Sir,

I read with interest, and some dismay, the article by Sally Emerson, “The Cuckfield Dinosaur” (ILN, July, 1977)

With interest, because it was well written and featured that fascinating figure of English science, Gideon Algernon Mantell; with dismay, because it repeats the long-standing but quite incorrect story that Mantell was the first scientific discovery of dinosaurs.

The first recorded discovery of a dinosaur bone was by Robert Plot, the first keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. In his natural history of Oxfordshire (1677), plot illustrated and described part of the femur of what was probably megalosaurus though he considered it to be probably the bone of an elephant imported into Britain by the Romans. A typical megalosaurus tooth was fingered by plots successor Edward Lhwyd, in his Lithophylacti Britannici Ichnographica (1699), and three vertebrae and an incomplete femur, again probably of megalosaurus, were collected by Joshua Platt of Stonesfield Oxfordshire, the latter bone being figured in the philosophical transactions of the Royal Society (1758) and tentatively attributed to a “large animal”.

It can justly be claimed that none of the above was truly a scientific record or description of dinosaur remains. However, in that regard the true priority belongs not to Mantell, but to William Buckland (1784 - 1836). Buckland was a Victorian scientific polymath; he was the first professor of geology at Oxford and his other accomplishments are too numerous to list here.

The Reverend William Buckland

The exact date of Buckland's discovery of dinosaur bones at Stonesfield is not known; but it was certainly prior to 1818, since the great French anatomist and vertebrae palaeontologist Baron Cuvier, Records saying the bones during a visit to Oxford in that year (Cuvier, recherche sur les Ossemens fossiles, vol5, p343, 1824). The name given to these bones, megalosaurus, first appeared in print in Parkinson's outlines of Oryctology (1822, p 298); but it was not until 1824 that Buckland published his "notice on the megalosaurus, or Great fossil lizard of Stonesfield" (trans-jollity Society London, series 2, volume one, paragraph 390-396). Even so, it's a publication preceded by one year the publication of Mantell's account of iguanodon; and the discovery of the bones of megalosaurus must have occurred at least four years before Mrs Mantell found the tooth at Cuckfield.

Thus Mantell was neither the first to discover nor the first to describe a species of dinosaur; arguably Plot was the first discoverer, and certainly Buckland was the first to describe, a dinosaur. Mantell deserves credit, however, for being the first to identify the remains of a herbivorous dinosaur, for megalosaurus was a carnivore; and Mantell’s discovery of iguanodon was the first description of a member of the Ornithischia, one of the two great groups of dinosaurs, for megalosaurus is a member of the Saurischia. Thus Mantell remains a major figure in the history of dinosaur discovery, but he certainly was not the first to discover and describe a dinosaur.

Professor W. A. S. Sargeant

Department of Geological Sciences,

University of Saskatchewan,

Saskatoon, Canada.

For more on Mantell, please follow the link:- https://gideonmantell.wordpress.com/page/2/