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Who Was the First to Discover Dinosaur Eggs?

Despite an immense wave of publicity heralding the discovery of dinosaur eggs in 1923, French paleontologists had discovered them decades earlier

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A restoration of Hypselosaurus, a sauropod dinosaur which may have laid some of the eggs found in Cretaceous rock of Southern France. Art by Nobu Tamura, from Wikipedia.

When Roy Chapman Andrews returned from an American Museum of Natural History expedition to the Gobi Desert in 1923, there was only one thing the press wanted to talk to him about—dinosaur eggs. News had spread quickly that the field team had returned with the first dinosaur eggs ever discovered, and newspapers excitedly tried to outbid each other for an exclusive on the fantastic fossil find. Andrews quickly tired of the popular interest. According to Charles Gallenkamp’s biography of the explorer, Andrews became frustrated that all anyone wanted to talk about was dinosaur eggs. “Vainly did I try to tell of the other vastly more important discoveries of the expedition,” Andrews lamented, “No one was interested.”

The fact that the AMNH expedition had found eggs closely associated with dinosaur skeletons was big news. But Andrews and his team were not the first explorers to find dinosaur eggs. That discovery had been made decades before, only no one seemed to remember it. Paleontologists Eric Buffetaut and Jean Le Loeuff set the record straight in a 1994 paper published in the Dinosaur Eggs and Babies volume.

As far as we know, the first naturalist to discover and describe dinosaur eggshells was the Roman Catholic priest Jean-Jacques Pouech. When not acting as head of Pamiers Seminary in southern France, he explored the geology and paleontology of the Late Cretaceous rock preserved in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains. He published a report on some of the fossils he found there in 1859, which included this section:

he most remarkable are eggshell fragments of very great dimensions. At first, I thought that hey could be integumentary plates of reptiles, but their constant thickness between two perfectly parallel surfaces, their fibrous structure, normal to the surfaces, and especially their regular curvature, definitely suggest that they are enormous eggshells, at least four times the volume of ostrich eggs.

Pouech had discovered dinosaur eggs, although he did not call them that. Buffetaut and Le Loeuff suspect that Pouech might have been unfamiliar with what dinosaurs were—the term “dinosaur” had been coined only in 1842 by British anatomist Richard Owen—and therefore did not connect dinosaurs with the large pieces of eggshell he discovered. Instead, Pouech thought the eggs might have been laid by enormous birds (an conclusion similar to what New England paleontologist Edward Hitchcock proposed for the creatures that left large, three-toed footprints all over the ancient Connecticut Valley.)

The lack of dinosaurian attribution might have played a role in keeping Pouech’s discovery from gaining the attention of other naturalists, but there was another factor which caused his discovery to eventually be overlooked. In 1859, no one had seen dinosaur eggshell before. It’s not altogether surprising that when Pouech showed the fossils to experts at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, they did not agree that the shards came from large eggs. Privately, Pouech changed his mind—perhaps the pieces were parts of armadillo shells. It was not until 1989 that Buffetaut and Le Loeuff were able to relocated Pouech’s collection. The amateur paleontologist’s original conclusion had been on the right track. The fragments truly were from huge eggs, only ones laid by dinosaurs rather than birds.

The obscurity of Pouech’s discovery and his subsequent reinterpretation of the fossils prevented the find from gaining much attention. But Pouech wasn’t the only 19th-century naturalist to turn up dinosaur eggs. Only a decade after Pouech wrote about his eggshell pieces, the geologist Philippe Matheron also discovered eggshells in the Cretaceous strata of southern France. Matheron wondered whether the eggs were laid by a giant bird or a “hypselosaur”—a creature Matheron believed to be a giant crocodile on the basis of fossil bones he had previously described, but which ultimately turned out to be a sauropod dinosaur.

Matheron never got around to writing a full description of the eggs, but his countryman and colleague Paul Gervais studied the eggs at a microscopic level in an attempt to figure out what sort of creature had laid them. Although the minute details of the eggs did not exactly match the structure of known bird or reptile eggs, the fossils seemed to roughly resemble eggs laid by turtles. Since it seemed most likely that Matheron’s hypselosaur laid the eggs, Gervais reasoned, the creature may have been more turtle-like than originally thought. Additional analyses of Matheron’s eggshells produced similarly tentative conclusions. The microstructure of the eggs alone was not enough to solve the puzzle, and a dinosaurian connection was impossible to make because no one had found an identifiable dinosaur skeleton associated with the eggs.

But some early 20th century French paleontologists were still aware of what had been found before. In the December 1923 issue of the magazine L’Illustration, Andrews claimed that his discovery was the first to confirm that dinosaurs laid eggs. French paleontologist Louis Joleaud wrote to correct Andrews on this point—Matheron had discovered dinosaur eggs decades earlier, even if he incorrectly presumed that an enormous crocodile had laid the eggs. But it seems that this correction did not gain traction, either. Even though the Gobi finds inspired new analyses of Pouech’s and Matheron’s discoveries—both sets of fragments were reinterpreted as dinosaur eggs—the history behind the discoveries from the south of France were lost. A mix of misinterpretation and lack of communication had hidden the discoveries of dinosaur eggs.

References:

Buffetaut, E., and Le Loeuff, J. 1994. The discovery of dinosaur eggshells in nineteenth-century France. in Carpenter, K., Hirsch, K., and Horner, J. eds. Dinosaur Eggs and Babies. New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 31-34

Gallenkamp, C. 2001. Dragon Hunter: Roy Champman Andrews and the Central Asiatic Expeditions. New York: Viking. p.181

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About Brian Switek
Brian Switek

Brian Switek is a freelance science writer specializing in evolution, paleontology, and natural history. He writes regularly for National Geographic's Phenomena blog as Laelaps.

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