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The 10 Most Influential Paleontologists and Dinosaur Hunters

10 People Who Changed Dinosaur Science


If it weren't for the efforts of thousands of paleontologists, evolutionary biologists and geologists, we wouldn't know nearly as much about dinosaurs as we do today. Here's a list of 10 dinosaur hunters who have contributed more to our knowledge of these ancient reptiles than anyone else in the field.

1. Luis Alvarez

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 evidence for the actual impact crater on Mexico's Yucatan peninsula. For the first time, scientists possessed a solid explanation about why the dinosaurs went extinct--which hasn't prevented some mavericks from offering alternative theories.

2. Robert Bakker

For over two decades, Robert H. Bakker has been the leading proponent of the theory that dinosaurs were warm-blooded, 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, but he's sparked a vigorous debate about dinosaur metabolism that will likely persist into the foreseeable future.

3. Barnum Brown

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Barnum Brown (yes, he was named after P.T. Barnum of traveling circus fame) wasn't much of an egghead or innovator; rather, he 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 dynamite to pickaxes. Brown's exploits whetted the American public's appetite for dinosaur displays, especially at his own institution, now the most famous dinosaur depository in the entire world.

4. Edwin H. Colbert

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: a skeleton of the mammal-like reptile Lystrosaurus in Antarctica, which proved that Africa and the southern continent used to be joined in one gigantic land mass. Since then, the theory of continental drift during the Mesozoic Era has done much to advance our understanding of dinosaur evolution.

5. Edward Drinker Cope

No one in history (with the possible exception of Adam) has named more prehistoric creatures than the 19th-century 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 merciless feud with his archrival Othniel C. Marsh, who was no slouch himself when it came to hunting down fossils.

6. Dong Zhiming

An inspiration to an entire generation of Chinese paleontologists, Dong Zhiming has spearheaded numerous expeditions to China's northwest Dashanpu Formation, where he's unearthed the remains of various hadrosaurs, pachycephalosaurs and sauropods (himself naming no fewer than 20 separate genuses). In a way, Dong's impact has been most deeply felt in China's northeast, where paleontologists emulating his example have unearthed numerous dino-bird fossils at sites like Liaoning.

7. Jack Horner

To many people, Jack Horner will forever be famous as the inspiration for Sam Neill's character in the movie Jurassic Park. However, Horner is best known among paleontologists for his game-changing discoveries, including the extensive nesting grounds of the duck-billed dinosaur Maiasaura (proof that some dinosaurs cared for their young), as well as a chunk of T. Rex with intact proteins, analysis of which has proved the evolutionary descent of birds from dinosaurs.

8. Othniel C. Marsh

Working in the late 19th century, Othniel C. Marsh secured his place in history by naming more popular dinosaurs than any other paleontologist--including Allosaurus, Stegosaurus and Triceratops. Today, however, he's best remembered for his role in the Bone Wars, his enduring feud with Edward Drinker Cope. Thanks to this rivalry, Marsh and Cope dug up and named many, many more dinosaurs than if they'd managed to coexist peacefully, greatly advancing our knowledge of this extinct breed.

9. John H. Ostrom

Way back in the 1960's, John H. Ostrom created a major stir by proposing that birds were descended from dinosaurs--a theory prompted by his discovery of the muscular, bipedal raptor Deinonychus, which shared many anatomical characteristics with large, flightless birds. His legacy also includes the influential theories of his long-time student Robert Bakker, who used Deinonychus as a launching point for a complete reevaluation of dinosaur metabolism.

10. Patricia Vickers-Rich

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 Leaellynasaura, named after her daughter--show that some dinosaurs thrived in the near-arctic conditions of Cretaceous Australia, lending more weight to the theory that dinosaurs were warm-blooded (and more adaptable to extreme environmental conditions than had been previously thought).
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