Mosasaurus recently leapt into the limelight thanks to Jurassic World, but did you know that it also turned the world upside down? Today we tell the troubled tale of Mosasaurus and the man who used it to prove extinction was real: Georges Cuvier.
Last week, we discussed Thomas Jefferson, his mammoth, and his megalonyx. Due to his faith and an absence of evidence, Jefferson never accepted extinction as fact. Georges Cuvier is almost a historical foil to Jefferson. Slightly younger but equally as brilliant if not more so, Cuvier was doing the same work at the same time, only in France.
Before Jefferson discovered his mammoth, Cuvier had already named several species of mastodon. Where Jefferson believed the lack of American elephants might be due to their living in the unexplored west, Cuvier believed the elephants had died out, and he set out to prove it. His quest led him to a creature like nothing on earth: the mosasaurus.
Mosasaurus was a whale-sized oceanic reptile, and while only a quarter of the size of its Jurassic World counterpart, it was still a devastating predator. Paleontologists believe it’s closely related to snakes or monitor lizards, and there’s strong evidence for this possibility in the fossil record as well as some modern-day reptiles.
Here’s a look at different mosasaurids through time, assuming the starting point was a monitor-type creature:
Later, we have the dallasaurus, who’s legs are significantly reduced but still capable of travel on land.
Much, much later, there’s plotosaurus, fully adapted for aquatic living and speed in the water.
Mosasaurids came in all shapes and sizes. The name-sake mosasaurus wasn’t the biggest or strongest, but its fossils were the first to be discovered.
After their harrowing journey to the French Museum of Natural History where Cuvier worked, he was able to prove that the reason there was nothing like mosasaurus on Earth was because it had died out.
Extinction as a concept became undeniable, and what was previously heresy became fact. Attempts by naturalists and men of faith alike to explain it all culminated in the ideas that laid the groundwork for adaptation and evolution to take center stage.
Much like Jefferson could not accept extinction though, Cuvier’s personal philosophies had him denying adaptation even as everyone around him bought into it. Many of his scientific hypotheses were left to history and forgotten. How ironic then that extinction, the very idea that things die out, lives on.
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