The 12 Most Influential Paleontologists

Saturday, May 20, 2017


If it weren't for the concerted efforts of literally thousands of paleontologists, evolutionary biologists and geologists, we wouldn't know nearly as much about dinosaurs as we do today. Below you'll find profiles of 12 dinosaur hunters, from all around the world, who have made outsized contributions to our knowledge about these ancient beasts.

Luis Alvarez (1911-1988)

Luis Alvarez (left) accepting an award from president Harry S Truman (Wikimedia Commons).

By training, Luis Alvarez was a physicist, not a paleontologist--but that didn't stop him from theorizing about a meteor impact that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, and then (with his son, Walter) discovering actual evidence for the actual impact crater on Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, in the form of scattered remnants of the element iridium. For the first time, scientists possessed a cogent explanation for why the dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago--which, of course, hasn't prevented mavericks from proposing dubious alternative theories.

Mary Anning (1799-1847)

Mary Anning (Wikimedia Commons).

Mary Anning was an influential fossil hunter even before this phrase came into wide usage: in the early 19th century, scouring England's Dorset coast, she recovered the remains of two marine reptiles (an ichthyosaur and a plesiosaur), as well as the first pterosaur ever unearthed outside of Germany. Amazingly, by the time she died in 1847, Anning had received a lifetime annuity from the British Association for the Advancement of Science--at a time when women weren't expected to be literate, much less capable of practicing science! (Anning was also, by the way, the inspiration for the old children's rhyme "she sells sea shells by the sea shore.")

Robert H. Bakker (1945-)

Robert Bakker (Wikimedia Commons).

For almost three decades, Robert H. Bakker has been the leading proponent of the theory that dinosaurs were warm-blooded like mammals, rather than cold-blooded like modern lizards (how else, he argues, could the hearts of sauropods have pumped blood all the way up to their heads?) Not all scientists are convinced by Bakker's theory--which he inherited from his mentor, John H. Ostrom, the first scientist to propose an evolutionary link between dinosaurs and birds--but he has sparked a vigorous debate about dinosaur metabolism that will likely persist into the foreseeable future.

Barnum Brown (1873-1963)

Barnum Brown, on the right (Wikimedia Commons)

Barnum Brown (yes, he was named after P.T. Barnum of traveling circus fame) wasn't much of an egghead or innovator, and he wasn't even much of a scientist or paleontologist. Rather, Brown made his name early in the 20th century as the chief fossil hunter for New York's American Museum of Natural History, for which purposes he preferred (fast) dynamite to (slow) pickaxes. Brown's exploits whetted the American public's appetite for dinosaur skeletons, especially at his own institution, now the most famous depository of prehistoric fossils in the entire world. Brown's most famous discovery: the first documented fossils of none other than Tyrannosaurus rex.

Edwin H. Colbert (1905-2001)

Edwin H. Colbert on a dig in Antarctica (Wikimedia Commons).

Edwin H. Colbert had already made his mark as a working paleontologist (discovering the early dinosaurs Coelophysis and Staurikosaurus, among others) when he made his most influential discovery, in Antarctica: a skeleton of the mammal-like reptile Lystrosaurus, which proved that Africa and this giant southern continent used to be joined in one gigantic land mass. Since then, the theory of continental drift has done much to advance our understanding of dinosaur evolution; for example, we now know that the first dinosaurs evolved in the region of the supercontinent Pangea corresponding to modern-day South America, and then spread to the rest of the world's continents over the next few million years.

Edward Drinker Cope (1840-1897)

Edward Drinker Cope (Wikimedia Commons).

No one in history (with the possible exception of Adam) has named more prehistoric animals than the 19th-century American paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope, who wrote over 600 papers over his long career and bestowed names on nearly 1,000 fossil vertebrates (including Camarasaurus and Dimetrodon). Today, though, Cope is best known for his part in the Bone Wars, his ongoing feud with his archrival Othniel C. Marsh (see slide #10), who was no slouch himself when it came to hunting down fossils. How bitter was this clash of personalities? Well, later in his career, Marsh saw to it that Cope was denied positions at both the Smithsonian Institution and the American Museum of Natural History!

Dong Zhiming (1937-)

Dong Zhiming (China Scenic Magazine).

An inspiration to an entire generation of Chinese paleontologists, Dong Zhiming has spearheaded numerous expeditions to China's northwest Dashanpu Formation, where he has unearthed the remains of various hadrosaurs, pachycephalosaurs and sauropods (himself naming no fewer than 20 separate dinosaur genera, including Shunosaurus and Micropachycephalosaurus). In a way, Dong's impact has been most deeply felt in China's northeast, where paleontologists emulating his example have unearthed numerous specimens of dino-birds from the Liaoning fossil beds--many of which shed valuable light on the slow evolutionary transition of dinosaurs into birds.

Jack Horner (1946-)

Jack Horner (Wikimedia Commons).

To many people, Jack Horner will forever be famous as the inspiration for Sam Neill's character in the first Jurassic Park movie. However, Horner is best known among paleontologists for his game-changing discoveries, including the extensive nesting grounds of the duck-billed dinosaur Maiasaura and a chunk of Tyrannosaurus rex with intact soft tissues, analysis of which has lent support to the evolutionary descent of birds from dinosaurs. Lately, Horner has been in the news for his semi-serious scheme to clone a dinosaur from a live chicken, and, slightly less controversially, for his recent claim that the horned, frilled dinosaur Torosaurus was actually an unusually elderly Triceratops adult.

Othniel C. Marsh (1831-1899)

Othniel C. Marsh (Wikimedia Commons).

Working in the late 19th century, Othniel C. Marsh secured his place in history by naming more popular dinosaurs than any other paleontologist—including AllosaurusStegosaurus and Triceratops. Today, however, he's best remembered for his role in the Bone Wars, his enduring feud with Edward Drinker Cope (see slide #7). Thanks to this rivalry, Marsh and Cope discovered and named many, many more dinosaurs than would have been the case if they'd managed to coexist peacefully, greatly advancing our knowledge of this extinct breed. (Unfortunately, this feud also had a negative impact: so quickly and carelessly did Marsh and Cope erect various genera and species of dinosaurs that modern paleontologists are still cleaning up the mess.)

Richard Owen (1804-1892)

Richard Owen (Wikimedia Commons).

Far from the nicest person on this list, Richard Owen used his lofty position (as superintendent of the vertebrate fossil collection at the British Museum, in the mid-19th century) to bully and intimidate his colleagues, including the eminent paleontologist Gideon Mantell. Still, there's no denying the impact Owen has had on our understanding of prehistoric life; he was, after all, the man who coined the word "dinosaur," and he was also one of the first scholars to study Archaeopteryx and the newly discovered therapsids ("mammal-like reptiles") of South Africa. Oddly enough, Owen was extremely slow to accept Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, perhaps jealous that he hadn't come up with the idea himself!

Paul Sereno (1957-)

Paul Sereno (University of Chicago).

The early 21st-century version of Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel C. Marsh, but with a much nicer disposition, Paul Sereno has become the public face of fossil hunting for an entire generation of schoolchildren. Often sponsored by the National Geographic Society, Sereno has led well-funded expeditions to fossil sites all over the globe, including South America, China, Africa and India, and has named numerous genera of prehistoric animals, including one of the earliest true dinosaurs, the South American Eoraptor. Sereno has encountered particular success in northern Africa, where he led teams that discovered and named both the giant sauropod Jobaria and the vicious "great white shark lizard," Carcharodontosaurus.

Patricia Vickers-Rich (1944-)

Patricia and Paul Vickers-Rich (The Australian).

Patricia Vickers-Rich (along with her husband, Tim Rich) has done more to advance Australian paleontology than any other scientist. Her numerous discoveries at Dinosaur Cove—including the big-eyed ornithopod Leaellynasaura, named after her daughter, and the controversial "bird mimic" dinosaur Timimus, named after her son—have demonstrated that some dinosaurs thrived in the near-arctic conditions of Cretaceous Australia, lending weight to the theory that dinosaurs were warm-blooded (and more adaptable to extreme environmental conditions than had previously been thought). Vickers-Rich also has not been adverse to soliciting corporate sponsorship for her dinosaur expeditions; Qantassaurus and Atlascopcosaurus were both named in honor of Australian companies!