The dirt wakes to the sound of a pneumatic hammer, a constant meditative flow freeing every trace of itself from the fossil’s core. As fragments of the specimen are revealed, the investigator’s mind fills in the details: A long, sinuous body suggests the image of a serpent; an imprint of tentacles could only belong to a Kraken;
a colossal beaked skull triggers sketches of griffins. A mythical creature is born.
During the first half of the 18th century, such creatures were of great concern to researchers. Seemingly everyone was determined to find the beasts that produced these fossils. Remarkably, their ideas were not always so far-fetched. The unicorn, for instance, may have been based on the fossilized remains of a real animal: the Elasmotherium. This animal had an equine build with slender legs appropriate for galloping, and it possessed the signature single horn. Similarly, the source for tales of giant sea serpents may lie with the washed-up carcasses of basking sharks, an intimidatingly long species (23 to 30 feet, on average) with a serpentine appearance.
In 1784, one naturalist set out to prove that unicorns and giant sea serpents did not exist by publishing a series of letters as a plea for reason. These claims were met with so much contention that the author was forced to remain anonymous. By that point, the public’s imagination was too captivated. It — not science — influenced the very direction of discovery.
This insistence fueled the creation of yet more monsters. In the late 1700s, naturalists in Philadelphia began to assemble “the great American incognitum,” a towering, elephantine creature with horrifying claws and “the agility and ferocity of a tiger.”
The claws actually came from a giant ground sloth found nearby, and the monster’s build was overestimated by a factor of six. Later restorers jammed other elements into the structure so as to increase both ferocity and museum ticket sales. Tusks were forced and screwed into the head portion, then flipped over to resemble the canines of a saber-toothed tiger. In 1795, the jigsaw puzzle of a beast was formally described by French paleontologist Georges Cuvier and termed mastodon, which means “nipple-teeth.”
No one could quite unearth and correctly piece together monsters like the least-renowned paleontologist of all. If anything, Mary Anning is better known for inspiring the famous tongue-twister, “She sells seashells by the seashore,” than for her paleontological exploits. Spending each day meandering on the English coast, Anning would extract and collect various artifacts, then sell them to researchers. She is responsible for having discovered the first plesiosaur fossils, an intricate project that took over 10 years, as well as one of the first pterodactyl fossils. Unlike many, she was able to skillfully extract fossils and solve their elusive puzzles.
Since excavations took a considerable amount of time, financial opportunities were scarce. Researchers who could quickly produce tantalizing results — usually by piecing together a grab bag of different remains — received the most profit. A smattering of fossils that Anning sold often wound up in such careless hands.
Enter the iguanodon, an awkward-looking creature displayed in the world’s first exhibition to contain life-sized models of dinosaurs, Crystal Palace Park in London. Although the animal’s parts mostly came from the same creature, they, too, were positioned together more on the basis of fantastical notion than reasoning. One of its thumbs was fastened atop its nose to form a clumped spike. Its spine was modified in such a way that the creature hunched over on four legs — even though the real dinosaur was bipedal. Nonetheless, the exhibition was a success. The public fell for a stout, abnormal iguanodon.
One of the plights of recent paleontology has been taxonomy, the categorization of organisms into different groups. In 1877, Professor Othniel Charles Marsh discovered an incomplete skeleton of a new dinosaur: Apatosaurus ajax. A mere two years later, he unearthed an even larger monster with different dimensions: Brontosaurus exculsus, which would soon come to adorn the shelves of children’s toy departments everywhere. Yet the 1900s brought grim news: The Brontosaurus was an adult version of the Apatosaurus.
Such mistakes have yet to leave the world of taxonomy. As recent as July of this year, the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology published an article by two researchers, who implied that Triceratops dinosaurs are but juveniles of the Torosaurus genus. These findings were based on the results of a 10-year study of more than 50 specimens and over 30 skulls, an impressive amount for one geographic location. For diehard dinosaur fans, the news was shattering.
With an ever-increasing number of fossils to pore over, it would be foolish to believe these shocking realizations have come to an end. Environmental conditions must be perfect for a fossil to even form, and remains are occasionally scattered or incomplete. Oftentimes, a researcher is left with fragments that don’t divulge much — unless to a curious mind. Yet the diversity of fossils and the ways in which they form is so impressive, it’s no wonder our imagination still gets the best of us.