York film professor examines the original dinosaur hunters

Did a young girl from a poor family in Victorian England take the first steps in the discovery of what we now call dinosaurs? York Professor Seth Feldman (left) examines this fascinating question – and many more about how we arrived at the idea of dinosaurs – in a radio documentary for the CBC program “Ideas.”

“Inventing Dinosaurs” will air on CBC Radio One in two parts, Jan. 17 and 18 (9:05pm Eastern Time). It tells the story of an odd assortment of Victorians who spent their days collecting fossils in the first half of the 19th century, before the concept of dinosaurs had emerged.

There was Mary Anning (right), the young girl who chiseled these “curiosities” out of the chalk cliffs of Lyme Regis, on the south coast of England, and sold them to tourists in order to support herself and her family. She grew up to become one of the most successful fossil collectors and respected paleontologists of her day.

William Buckland, the only professor of geology at Oxford University at the time, also discovered large bones and speculated about their origins. Gideon Mantell, a country doctor, took a giant fossilized tooth and extrapolated from it the vision of giant reptiles roaming the pleasant hills of prehistoric Sussex.

“The discovery of dozens of species of dinosaurs occurred in the last third of the 19th century, mostly in North America. But there was a period from about 1800 to 1860 when these people in England went from finding big bones and not knowing what to do with them to inventing the science of dinosaurs in bits and pieces. They laid the groundwork for the great bone race that followed, not to mention the theory of evolution,” explained Feldman.

Right: An early Victorian illustration of an ichthyosaurus fossil

What Anning, Buckland and Mantell had in common was a fascination with their exotic finds, said Feldman, a York film professor who has researched and written more than 20 documentaries for “Ideas”. Anning and her brother discovered fossils of marine reptiles and flying reptiles. Buckland discovered the Megalosaurus, the first animal that was later called a dinosaur. The tooth that Mantell discovered belonged to the animal that would be classified as dinosaur number two, the Iguanodon.

That classification, including the word “dinosaur” itself, was the work of Richard Owen (left), a comparative anatomist in England who, as the documentary shows, ruthlessly borrowed the work of others to become England’s foremost authority on dinosaurs. Owen had been commissioned to make sense of all these prehistoric animals, and used the term “dinosauria” to describe “fearfully great lizards” – technically speaking, land reptiles with a backbone structure much like a mammal and jaws like a reptile.

Through “Inventing Dinosaurs”, Feldman and “Ideas” producer Sara Wolch capture the drama of the daily life of Anning, who became a folk hero – a kind of female Indiana Jones of fossil collecting – as well as other amateurs whose lifelong experience made them into paleontologists. The documentary draws on the wisdom of a number of living paleontologists as well as Hall Train, who is building animatronic dinosaurs in his studio in Mississauga, Ont. York Humanities Professor Bernie Lightman, editor of the Encyclopedia of Victorian Science (2004), offers his commentary on the culture that gave birth to these dinosaur hunters and their ideas.