Preview 3: Terrible Lizard

Gideon Mantell and the History of Life

“Gideon Mantell followed each development with great interest. His wife had returned to him and they had renewed their efforts to repair any misunderstandings; she had even come with hime to the quarry, an outing that Mantell described as ‘glorious’. Unlike some of the gentlemen scholars in London, Mantell was acutely aware that the astonishing beasts that were reported were not isolated examples. From his almost daily forays into the quarries of Sussex which he would not give up – even for his wife – he knew that reptilian remains were abundant. ‘Some of the reptiles, from their organization, have been fitted to live in the sea only,’ he observed, ‘while others were terrestrial, and many were inhabitants of rivers and lakes.’ Now there was evidence of reptiles in the air.

“How did this fit in with Cuvier’s ‘Age of Mammals’ in the more recent Tertiary strata, which lay above the Secondary rocks in which the reptiles were buried? A jaw from a mammal, an opossum-like creature, had been found in the ancient rock at Stonesfield, but apart from this, there were no mammals in the Secondary rocks. A distinct order was beginning to emerge in the fossil record of animal life on the planet, much as Adolphe Brongniart had revealed in the case of plant life. Mantell wrote:

“‘The prodigious quantity of the remains of these reptiles which has within a comparatively short period of time been found in England alone is truly astonishing. If to these we add the immense numbers that have been discovered in France, Germany &c and reflect that for one individual found in a fossil state, thousands more must have been devoured or decomposed; and that even of those that are fossilized , the number that comes under the notice of the naturalist must be trifling compared with the quantities unobserved or destroyed by labourers, we shall have a faintest idea of the myriads of ‘creeping things’ which inhabited the ancient world.’

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Published in: on November 21, 2008 at 8:30 pm  Leave a Comment