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Dinosaur Fossils

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Dinosaurs have become part of our popular culture, thanks to movies like "Jurassic Park," cartoon characters such as Barney, and television show personalities as Ross Gellar, the paleontologist on "Friends." Humans have been fascinated by these magnificent creatures since the first dinosaur bone was found and recorded in England in 1676. Since that discovery, a new group of scientists evolved, called paleontologists, derived from "paleo-" meaning "ancient."

The Facts about Dinosaur Fossils

In 1924, William Buckland was the first to scientifically describe dinosaurs, using the genus name Megalosaurus. However, it was not until 1842 that Sir Richard Owen coined the term Dinosauria (meaning "great lizard.") Owen was the first to recognize two similar characteristics within a group of fossils: five fused vertebra attached to the pelvic girdle, and column-like legs (as opposed to sprawling legs of other other reptiles). The first dinosaur bone found in the United States was in 1787 by Dr. Caspar Wister in New Jersey.

As more dinosaur bones and footprints were discovered, interest in these giant lizards began to grow, and finally, in 1838, the first nearly-complete dinosaur skeleton was discovered by William Parker Foulke in New Jersey. However, the significance of the finding was not immediately realized and as a result, these bones were not excavated until 1858 by Joseph Leidy. This specimen is known as the "Haddonfield Hadrosaurus" and can be found on display at the Philadelpha Academy of Natural Science.

Today, nearly every museum of science or natural history has some form of dinosaur exhibit. Most dinosaur fossils were found in the Western U.S. and Canada, although remains have also been excavated from Europe, Africa, China and Argentina. Children and adults alike are fascinated by these mysterious creatures who walked the earth so many years ago. By discovering, studying and collecting fossils, we can begin to gain greater understanding into our ancient past.

Interpreting Fossils

A fossil is the preserved remains of a plant or animal. By studying fossils, scientists can learn a great deal about plants and animals that predated the existence of humans. Dinosaur fossils can be divided into two basic categories: body part fossils and trace fossils. Fossils of dinosaur animal parts such as teeth, bones, claws, eggs and tissues, give scientists clues to the appearance and physical anatomy of dinosaurs. Trace fossils (footprints, toothmarks, dung, burrows and nests) provide insight into animal behavior and movements.

Body fossils are often comprised from hard body parts, such as bone, claws and teeth. However, fossils of soft body parts, including embryos, eggs, skin, organs and muscle tissue have also been discovered. Bone fossils provide scientists with the most information about dinosaurs, particularly with regards to their shape, size and body composition. Skin fossils give clues to the creature's exterior and protective covering. Organ and muscle tissue fossils are exceptionally rare, since the specimen was likely to decay or be eaten before fossilization could occur.

Trace fossils tell scientists how the dinosaurs behaved. For example, dinosaur footprints can show the creature's speed, stride, stance, hunting methods, geographic location, etc. Fossilized feces can actually provide information about the dinosaurs' diets and habitats. This information helped paleontologists separate carnivores from herbivores.

Fossils are preserved moments of the past, and together they tell the story of prehistoric times. The role of scientists is to study fossils and piece together each bit of information to create an accurate representation of the past. This can be very challenging, and also very rewarding. By studying and learning more about fossils, we can delve into ancient times and educate others, creating an interest in sharing and preserving these pieces of history.

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