In 1842, English anatomist Richard Owen proposed the term dinosauria for the strange animal fossils he and colleagues had begun to study. Owen drew from ancient Greek to create the word: deinos, meaning “terrible” in the awesome-to-behold sense, and sauros, “reptile” or “lizard.”
The truth is, those early paleontologists — and generations of their successors — got those terrible lizards, well, terribly wrong: T. rex as a tail-dragging lunk, tank-like Iguanodon, long-necked sauropods submerged in water because surely they were too big to walk on land.
One problem early paleontologists faced was that they were limited to merely looking at a fossil and finding a living animal to compare it with visually.
“Dinosaurs were very alien, very different,” says University of Leicester paleontologist David Unwin. “[Paleontologists] tried to force them to fit into paradigms that didn’t exist then.”
Matthew Lamanna, assistant curator of vertebrate paleontology at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History, agrees that early paleontologists were restricted by what they could compare dinosaurs to — and how they understood the broader living world.
“Remember the origin of the word dinosaur predates the theory of evolution,” Lamanna says. “Ideas about animal [species] being transitional had yet to materialize. Now we know that dinosaurs are sort of bizarre croc-birds, but back then the concept would have been very hard to imagine.”
Early on, a few great minds did suspect that science might be getting dinosaurs wrong. Comparative anatomist Thomas Henry Huxley, for example, noticed similarities in the body plans of dinosaurs and birds as early as the 1860s. He thought there might be an indirect evolutionary relationship, though he never claimed birds descended from dinosaurs.
But Huxley — often called Darwin’s bulldog for his staunch support of evolution — couldn’t rally others to the idea. It would be more than a century before the dinosaur-bird connection gained traction.
And it was a long hundred-plus years. Interest in dinosaurs was growing in both academic and public spheres, and research standards were often less than rigorous. In lecture rooms and museum halls, the idea of dinosaurs as overgrown lazy lizards was so dominant that it verged on the absurd.
Consider the Diplodocus debate of the early 20th century. After acquiring a specimen of the massive sauropod, Carnegie Museum paleontologist William Holland and colleagues mounted it for display in an elephant-like posture. We now know this was the right approach: legs directly beneath the body, rather than the sprawled stance of a reptile.
The move brought howls of disapproval, most pointedly from two paleontologists, American Oliver Hay and German Gustav Tornier, who insisted that the 80-foot-plus animal had walked like a reptile.
“Holland had a spectacular rebuttal,” says Lamanna, referring to a withering 1910 paper by the Carnegie paleontologist, which included illustrations based on Tornier’s claims. “Holland articulated the skeletons in the sprawling posture, but their ribs were so damn deep that they projected below the body.”
As Holland drily pointed out in the retort, if his critics were right about the dinosaur’s stance, “the Diplodocus must have moved in a groove or a rut. This might perhaps account for his early extinction. It is physically and mentally bad to ‘get into a rut.’ ”