10 of the Best Dinosaur Fossil Discoveries of All Time | History Hit

10 of the Best Dinosaur Fossil Discoveries of All Time

Lily Johnson

31 Jan 2023
Megalosaurus bucklandi, 1824, a dentary from the middle Bathonian Stonesfield Slate of Oxfordshire
Image Credit: Ghedoghedo / CC BY-SA 3.0

From the 19th century onwards, a host of incredible discoveries in the field of palaeontology began to emerge, as vast dinosaur fossils were unearthed in tremendous and terrifying measure. 

Here are 10 of the best dinosaur fossil discoveries of all time:

1. Megalosaurus 

First on our list is the Megalosaurus, the first dinosaur skeleton to be described in scientific literature. 

In 1815, bones belonging to this large prehistoric creature were discovered at the Stonesfield quarry in Oxford. They were soon acquired by palaeontologist William Buckland, who identified them as the skeleton of a gigantic lizard, the likes of which had never been seen before. 

Research on this creature’s bones continued in the following decades under Buckland, renowned French anatomist Georges Cuvier, and British anatomist Richard Owen, as more and more fragments of bones emerged. 

In 1824, Buckland officially named the creature Megalosaurus. In 1842, Owen concluded that the creature was so vastly different to any known to inhabit earth, that it required a brand new classification: Dinosauria, meaning “terrible, or fearfully great, reptiles”.

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2. Iguanodon

Another early dinosaur discovery was the Iguanodon, whose teeth were first found by Dr Gideon Mantell and his wife Mary Mantell in the early 19th century. 

They were first compared to the teeth of an iguana, and in 1825 the potential genus was named “Iguanodon”, meaning ‘iguana-tooth’. 

When in 1834 a larger specimen was discovered in a limestone quarry in Kent by William Bensted, Gideon Mantell was finally able to create a clearer image of the unknown creature, following which it became one of the first three included in the Dinosauria classification.

3. Coprolites (fossilised faeces)

While epic discoveries of fossilised bones are often lauded in history, another fossil find was also rather important: the coprolite, or in other words, fossilised dinosaur poo.

Coprolites had long been misidentified as fossilised fir tree cones or bezoar stones, and it wasn’t until the famous palaeontologist Mary Anning presented her findings to William Buckland in the 1820s that their true identity was revealed. 

Anning had hunted fossils in the cliffs around her home in Lyme Regis from a young age, and discovered her first coprolite aged 12.

She noted that when broken open they often contained fossilised fish bones and scales, leading her to suspect that they were fossilised faeces. This was suggested to Buckland and after further investigation he published that conclusion with credit to Anning. 

Portrait of Mary Anning – pioneering palaeontologist and fossil collector of the 1800s.

4. Archaeopteryx – “The Missing Link”

When the small bird-like Archaeopteryx fossil was discovered in the limestone deposits of Solnhofen, Germany in 1860, it made waves not only in the world of palaeontology, but also evolutionary science.

Similar in size to a magpie, this small ancient creature seemed to solve the ‘missing link’ between birds and dinosaurs, as they featured jaws with sharp teeth, a long bony tail and three clawed fingers. 

In the fourth edition of his On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin commented that: 

Hardly any recent discovery shows more forcibly than this how little we as yet know of the former inhabitants of the world

Single fossil feather found 1861. Although long associated with Archaeopteryx, the feather is non-avian. (This image shows the original fossil – not a cast.)

5. Diplodocus aka “Dippy”

When the Diplodocus‘ skeleton was discovered in Wyoming in 1898, its casting and distribution to museums around the world popularised the word ‘dinosaur’ for the first time amongst the general public. 

Known affectionately as ‘Dippy’, after a cast of this skeleton was first unveiled at London’s Natural History Museum in 1905, he inspired the subsequent popularity of the entire Diplodocus genus and was, for many, the first dinosaur they had ever seen.

Dippy the Diplodocus at the entrance hall of Natural History Museum, 2011

Image Credit: ohmanki / Shutterstock.com

6. Maiasaura nesting ground 

The Maiasaura fossils were interestingly found in a large nesting colony in Montana in 1978, with eggs, embryos and young animals all discovered inside nests. 

This provided evidence for the first time that some giant dinosaurs raised and fed their young in the nest, and would inform their name, Maiasaura, which comes from the Greek goddess Maia, the “Good Mother”. It also rubbed off on the area in which they were found, which became known as “Egg Mountain”.

7. Sleeping Nodosaur

In 2011, one of the most incredible dinosaur discoveries was unearthed: the ‘sleeping Nodosaur’. Though 112 million years old, its impressive preservation gives the appearance that it is merely sleeping, offering one of the most realistic images of a dinosaur ever found.

Also known as the ‘Sleeping Dragon’, the armoured dinosaur’s unique spiky exterior became fossilised in this three-dimensional manner after its body fell face-up onto the prehistoric seabed after its death. 

Due to a number of rare factors, this meant that instead of being flattened by millions of years of rock pressing down on it, it became extremely well preserved in its current state.

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8. The Ichthyosaur mother

Discovered in China in 2011, this Ichthyosaur was giving birth when it sadly died and was eventually fossilised. One baby was found already born outside the body, a second was still inside waiting to be born, and a third was trapped in the birth canal.

The discovery pushed back the known records of live birth to the very first appearances of marine reptiles 248 million years ago, with the latter baby’s head first position also providing brand new observations.

While marine creatures traditionally gave birth tail-first to prevent the baby from suffocating, this birth gave the evolutionary link between the earliest ichthyosaurs and the headfirst style of birth seen in their terrestrial counterparts.

Drawing of the skull of Temnodontosaurus (originally Ichthyosaurus) platyodon found by Joseph and Mary Anning, 1814

Image Credit: Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 1814 / Public Domain

9. ‘Fighting Dinosaurs’

When this fossil was discovered in Mongolia in 1971, the position of the ‘Fighting Dinosaurs’ drummed up a host of questions on exactly how the fierce pair died and why their bodies were so well preserved.

Comprising of one Protoceratops and one Velociraptor, the fossil suggested that the dinosaurs died simultaneously in a death match, as the Velociraptor has its right hand trapped within the jaws of the Protoceratops, and the left one scratching the Protoceratops’ skull. 

The discovery provided direct evidence that non-avian theropods could be active predators, and several hypotheses were proposed on their preservation, including a drowning scenario or burial by either dune collapse or sandstorm.

10. Patagotitan

In 2010, a ranch owner in Patagonia, Argentina noticed an enormous dinosaur bone peeking out of the ground. When scientists were brought in to investigate, they found the bones of at least six dinosaurs, including the Patagotitan, confirmed to be one of the largest animals to ever walk the earth. 

A sauropod similar to the famous Dippy, it was almost twice as tall and more than three times heavier, with photographs of its vast femur measuring longer a human soon circulating.

In March 2023, visitors to the Natural History Museum in London will come face to face with this giant when a vast replica of Patagotitan will go on display, as well as its impressive femur.

A Patagotitan fossil exhibited at the WA Boola Bardip Museum, Australia

Image Credit: Adwo / Shutterstock.com

Lily Johnson