In the world of paleontology and fossil hunting, it is usually the dinosaurs themselves that get all of the attention and rarely is the fossil hunter spotlighted fort heir efforts. The bigger the beast and the wider its bone-crunching jaws, the bigger the headline will be when it is discovered. The public at large is fascinated by the enormous size and power of dinosaurs and their outstanding physical features, and a wealth of gratitude is owed to those who found their fossilized remains. The history of fossil hunting is filled with many brilliant and charismatic human figures as well, some even being the inspiration for such movie heroes as Indiana Jones. In the early days there was a certain romanticism associated with fossil hunting, existing partially because of the naturally beautiful, and the untamed nature of many of the expedition sites.
There are two individuals who must be recognized for their efforts regarding fossil hunting, Charles Darwin and Georges Cuvier. Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution coincided with the discover of dinosaur fossils in the modern age and assisted scientists in understanding how these remains came to exist in the first place. Georges Cuvier is regarded by many as the father of paleontology, even though he never actually hunted for fossils. Cuvier examined many fossils while working at the Institute de France and named many specimens, including the mastodon and the Pterodactylus. His greatest contribution however, is that he was the first to suggest that the fossilized remains of dinosaurs came from an extinct species.
One of the earliest fossil hunters to gain recognition was a man named William Buckland (1784-1856), whose most important contribution to fossil hunting was his discovery of the Megalosaurus. Buckland’s dinosaur became the first scientifically named and described fossil specimen, and was given the species name Megalosaurus bucklandii by Gideon Mantell. Scientific study and enlightenment aside, fossil hunting also proved to be a lucrative market for some entrepreneurial spirits as well. Mary Anning (1799-1847) found her first dinosaur fossils with her brother during childhood, and in later years she began to sell some of the fossils that she found. Her role in the history of fossil hunting is not relegated to profit-making exclusively however, she was the first to find both the Plesiosaur and Ichthyosaurus.
In the history of fossil hunting in North America, there have been many first time discoveries. The Hadrosaurus recovered in 1858 is recorded as the first complete skeleton to have ever been found, as well as being the first example of a duck-billed dinosaur. The discovery was made by a fossil hunter named Joseph Leidy (1823-1891), who by finding the Hadrosaurus holds the distinction of finding the first fossilized dinosaur remains in America. In 1909 Earl Douglass (1862-1931) made one of the largest fossil discoveries of all time in America, when excavating the Carnegie Quarry in Utah. All together, Douglass found 350 tons of fossils and the site was later renamed “Dinosaur National Monument”. Barnum Brown (1873-1963) is yet another American paleontologist who found the first Tyrannosaurus Rex specimens, one of the most famous finds of all time.
In the history of South American fossil hunting there is one name that comes to mind, Jose F. Bonaparte. Born in Argentina in 1928, Bonaparte has found a large number of dinosaur fossils remains including the largest dinosaur yet found, the Argentinosaurus. Specializing in dinosaurs that lived during the late cretaceous period, the titanosaurs, Bonaparte has found such specimens as the Saltasaurus and the horned Carnotaurus.
Roy Chapman Andrews (1884-1960) is perhaps the best known of all fossil hunters, and during the 1920’s he made some of paleontology’s greatest discoveries. During ongoing expeditions in Mongolia, Andrews discovered the fossil remains of such dinosaurs as the Velociraptor, and the Oviraptor and earned his enduring reputation as one of the great explorers and adventurers. His greatest contribution would come later, when he found proof that dinosaurs reproduced by laying eggs, a theory that had long been debated but he answered unequivocally. It is rumored that Roy Andrews is the real life inspiration for the movie character Indiana Jones, and his expeditions in the politically turbulent Mongolian region of the 1920’s were certainly quite adventurous.
These are only a few of the fossil hunters whose contributions have furthered the science of paleontology and our understanding of the natural world. Some have garnered attention for their amazing and rare finds, while others for their flare and outgoing personalities. Their work can be seen firsthand at museums and institutes all across the world, and their discoveries have enriched our understanding of the prehistoric world for generations to come.