February 3, 2010

Happy Birthday, Gideon Mantell

This son of a shoemaker was born in 1790. He became a doctor, geologist and paleontologist, and he is most famous for his discovery and study of dinosaur fossils.

Mantell and his wife often walked together, and on one such walk one of them (many say it was his wife Mary Ann) found some large fossilized teeth. Mantell was already very knowledgeable about fossils (an
d had just written a book on the topic), but these teeth were hard to identify. He showed them to various scientists, most of whom assured him that they belonged to fish or to a rhinoceros or other mammal. Mantell finally realized that they resembled iguana teeth—but were about 20 times larger!

Mantell had to work hard to convince others that the teeth had come from the Mesozoic era and from a reptile-like creature. When he was finally proved to be correct, he got to name the new creature; he named it Iguanodon (or "iguana tooth"). Mantell's find was possibly the first dinosaur fossils t
o be found and certainly the second dinosaur to be studied and named.

Mantell's life was far from easy. He concentrated so much on fossil hunting and the scientific study of his fossils that his medical practice failed. This left him in a state of poverty. The town council transformed his home into a museum, which helped him with his financial situation—but he let so many people into the museum for free, that scheme failed as well.

Mantell's ideas about dinosaurs were alternately rejected and adopted by other scientists—but even when his ideas found favor, Mantell wasn't always given the credit he deserved. (Apparently a brilliant creationist / scientist
with an unpleasant personality, Sir Richard Owen, was especially guilty of both dissing Mantell and using his ideas without attribution. Owen's the guy who coined the word dinosaur.)

Eventually Mantell was left pretty much alone in the world; his wife divorced him, his daughter died, and his son went to New Zealand. Then he had a terrible carriage accident and lived the rest of his life crippled and in pain. Still, he continued to work with fossils, studying them and publishing scientific books and papers, until his death.

Today we acknowledge tha
t Mantell made great contributions to paleontology. At the time of his death, he had discovered four of the five genera of dinosaurs then known, and a monument to Mantell now sits on the spot where he and his wife first found the teeth of Iguanodon.

From Bones to Flesh:
Envisioning Dinosaurs

One of the difficulties that faced paleontologists in the early studies of dinosaurs was trying to make sense of rather incomplete skeletons. Mantell made a famous mistake when putting together an Iguanodon skeleton. This large plant eater had large thumb spikes that may have been used to dig up roots, or may have been a defensive weapon. But Mantell assumed the fossilized spike he found was a horn and placed it on the Iguanodon's nose.

Late in his li
fe, Mantell realized that Iguanodon had relatively slender arms and so wasn't the heavy, 4-legged creature that Sir Richard Owens was busy publicizing. However, Mantell died before he was able to convince others of the revised body plan. Owen was working with a sculptor to create large figures for the Crystal Palace (the sculptures of Igauanodons are shown above), and it was Owen's incorrect vision of Iguanodon that was immortalized in the sculptures and that became known to the public.

There was a banquet for twenty people inside the sculpture of the standing Iguanodon, while it was only part-way done. This banquet is show below.

To the left is a picture of the sculptor's workshop as he worked on the dinosaur models. The sculptor's name was Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins.

We now have evidence that indic
ates that Iguanodon generally stood on just two legs, although the “arms” and “hands” were built to bear weight some of the time. (Think of a chimp, which sometimes moves on two legs, sometimes moves on all fours, but definitely uses its arms and hands differently than 4-legged creatures like elephants or horses.) A model that depicts the modern understanding of Iguanodon is shown at the top of this post.

Draw an Iguanodon.

There are step-by-step instructions -- and also coloring pages about all sorts of dinosaurs -- at this HelloKids site.

Also, there are many different dinosaurs pictured in Kaboose's “Clip Art,” sponsored by Golden Books. (Scroll down to see all the dinos.)

Notice the different colors of the dinosaurs. Think about how we know about dinosaurs (almost entirely from fossilized bones, eggs, and footprints). Do we have any idea what color various dinos were? How do you think the Golden Book artists came up with the colors they chose? Why no pink-and-purple dinosaurs?

Draw and color your own versions of the dinosaurs. You can use realistic colors, like the Golden Book artists, or go crazy with colors that no dinosaur would have been been caught dead in!

Take a Dinosaur Quiz at the National Geographic Science site.

Explore the Kids Dinos website.

Make a dinosaur egg pinata.

Use paper mache to cover a large inflated balloon, leaving an area around the balloon tie large enough to fill the pinata with candies and small plastic dinosaurs. After the paper mache is dry, pop the balloon, pull it out of the hole, and fill the egg pinata. Next, cut a circle of cardboard, punch a hole in the circle, and thread one end of your rope through the hole. Tie a knot so that the rope stays attached to the circle, and secure with masking tape. Put the cardboard/rope apparatus into the hole in the pinata so that the long end of the rope emerges out of the top of the pinata, and tape the cardboard into place. You can add another layer of paper mache so that the top is more secure, if you have the time. Let it dry again. Finally, paint the egg in good camouflage colors, perhaps using a sponge to dab speckles of one color onto another color.

There are instructions on making paper mache on the DLTK website.

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