March 15, 2010
When I was growing up, New Jersey seemed like the worst place to be for an aspiring paleontologist. If I wanted to go looking for dinosaurs, it seemed, I would have to go out West. It was not until much later that I learned that New Jersey was home to some of the most important dinosaur discoveries ever made. The bones of Hadrosaurus, the first dinosaur in North America to be known from a partial skeleton, were found in New Jersey in 1858, and in 1866 the remains of the predatory Dryptosaurus (originally named “Laelaps,” but changed as the name was already given to a kind of mite) were found close by.
Both Hadrosaurus and Dryptosaurus were important to scientific debates about dinosaurs during the 1860s. Not only were they the most completely known dinosaurs from North America at that time, but they also confirmed that these dinosaurs (and by consequence, Iguanodon and Megalosaurus from England) walked around on two legs. Their discovery forced scientists to rethink what dinosaurs might have looked like, and the anatomist Thomas Henry Huxley, especially, pointed to their bird-like characteristics as an indication that birds had evolved from a dinosaur-like reptile.
Since the late 19th century, however, the histories of Hadrosaurus and Dryptosaurus have been uneven. While Hadrosaurus became the New Jersey state dinosaur and achieved a modicum of recognition, Dryptosaurus is an obscure genus that is only familiar to paleontologists and hardcore dinosaur enthusiasts. This is not helped by the fact that we scarcely know anything more about it than did the scientists of the late 19th century; outside of a few isolated bones no other Dryptosaurus skeletons have been found. From its resemblance to a recently discovered dinosaur from Alabama called Appalachiosaurus we know it was a tyrannosauroid, or a cousin of the more famous dinosaurs Tyrannosaurus and Albertosaurus, but otherwise Dryptosaurus has remained mysterious.
But not everyone has forgotten about Dryptosaurus. Yesterday afternoon at the New Jersey State Museum, Dryptosaurus fan Gary Vecchiarelli reviewed the history and significance of this dinosaur as part of his Project Dryptosaurus. Through his Web site and public talks Vecchiarelli hopes to raise public awareness of the dinosaur, and the ultimate goal of the project is to place a full reconstruction of Dryptosaurus in the fossil halls of the New Jersey State Museum when they eventually reopen. This would be the first such skeletal mount of its kind, and it would be a tribute to the importance of Dryptosaurus to the history of science.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.