Paleontology & Dinosaurs - Definition, History & Facts

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  • 0:01 What Is Paleontology?
  • 0:56 A Brief History of…
  • 1:48 Birth of Modern Paleontology
  • 3:53 Paleontology Today
  • 6:14 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Elizabeth (Nikki) Wyman

Nikki has a master's degree in teaching chemistry and has taught high school chemistry, biology and astronomy.

For most of human history, paleontology was like the fossil evidence it is based on--undiscovered. Once unearthed, the science of paleontology grew rapidly, evolving in unpredictable ways. Learn the definition of paleontology and the history of this rock-solid science, then test your new knowledge with a quiz.

What Is Paleontology?

Everything we know about dinosaurs and other dinosaur-like creatures comes from the work done in paleontology. If you have ever enjoyed a movie featuring a scary Tyrannosaurus Rex, played with miniature versions of Stegosauruses or seen a fossilized Triceratops in a museum, then you have the science of paleontology to thank.

Paleontology is based on fossil evidence, or mineralized and preserved remains. Paleontologists are the people who work in paleontology. They study a variety of fossils, including dinosaur bones, footprints, teeth, eggs, nests and even dung. By studying all of this evidence, paleontologists can learn all about dinosaur lives, from the food they ate to the ways they tended their young.

A Brief History of Paleontology

Though dinosaurs themselves lived 220 to 65 million years ago, humans have only been absolutely certain about their existence for less than 200 years. Ancient people speculated about the existence of creatures like dinosaurs. Greek and Roman philosophers thought that fossils were remnants of ancient life forms that had been preserved by the earth. People in China thought that fossilized dinosaur bones were the bones of dragons and used them for medicinal purposes.

In the Dark Ages of Europe, however, many of the enlightened thoughts of the Greeks and Romans were lost, especially those about fossils. From about the 6th to the 15th century, Europeans thought that fossils were the Devil's work, or that fossils were the remains of creatures that died during the Great Flood.

Birth of Modern Paleontology

Beginning in the Renaissance, scientists began to study fossils and develop theories about where fossils came from and how they were made. Biologists, geologists and even chemists contributed observations to the development of these theories.

Charles Lyell noticed that fossils changed gradually over time, an idea supported by Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Georges Cuvier, often noted to be the father of paleontology, observed the correlation between the age of fossils and the layers of rock they were found in; the older the fossil, the farther down it was buried.

At the same time these theories were being made, the first paleontologists were studying dinosaur bones and assembling some of the first fossilized skeletons. In 1824, William Buckland published the first description of a dinosaur, the Megalosaur. Even at this time, the concept of a dinosaur was nonexistent.

After Buckland's paper, the study of dinosaurs became very popular. In 1841 Richard Owen created the concept of dinosaurs, announcing these extinct creatures belong to a prehistoric group called Dinosauria, meaning 'terrible lizards.' This group was made of three genera of dinosaurs: Megalosaurus, Iguanodons and Hylaeosaurus. In the years that followed, more dinosaurs would be unearthed and studied, and Dinosauria would expand to contain more than 130 genera of dinosaurs.

In the late 1800s, Herman von Meyer discovered the winged, chicken-like Archaeopteryx. The strange likeness of this dinosaur to birds got scientists thinking that perhaps there was a connection between modern birds and extinct dinosaurs. Research done in the mid and late 1900s by John H. Ostrom firmly established the connection between modern birds and dinosaurs. It is now widely accepted that birds are the descendants of certain dinosaurs.

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