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The man who became the first researcher of dinosaurs in Russia

Joint project of St.-Petersburg Mining museum and Forpost Nord-West.
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Фото © Форпост Северо-Запад /

In 1912, an unexpected find was handed over to paleontologist Anatoly Ryabinin: a fossil bone that supposedly belonged to a dinosaur. This caused an ample resonance: no remains of the vertebrates of the Mesozoic era had ever been be found on the territory of Russia before the 20th century.

Similar finds had been brought to Russian scientists for study before, but after research they were proved to be fragments of crocodile or amphibian bones. "The dinosaurs of Russia, like the snakes of Ireland, are known only for the fact that they are absent," the famous American paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh sarcastically claimed at the end of the 19th century. To the surprise of the world scientific community, no traces of those were found in the largest country on the planet. At the same time, paleontologists, geologists and even ordinary farmers regularly encountered fossil bones, fossil skeletons, and even entire "dinosaur graveyards" in the U.S., China and Canada.

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Фото © Daderot, Википедия

Of course, this was by no means explained by the qualifications of domestic specialists, but by the peculiarity of the area. In the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, more than half of the territory of Russia was occupied by shallow seas; respectively, in the geological deposits of that time it was possible to find only marine invertebrates, amphibians and reptiles. Somewhere in the interior of the mainland there were large lizards. But their bones were thoroughly destroyed in subsequent eras: glaciers and then melted glacial waters broke and tore them into dust.

In addition, most of the U.S. paleontological finds have been made in badlands. This is a type of relief characteristic of North America: soft sedimentary rocks, due to the influence of wind and rain, form steep slopes, canyons and gorges. After washing out the next layer of soil, the fossil bones appeared on the surface of the soil on their own. In Russia, they lie deep underground in the steppes and fields; routinely, they were found either during the excavation of mines or on the banks of rivers.

рябинин
Фото © Фото из фондов Центрального научно-исследовательского геологоразведочного музея имени академика Чернышева

The erroneousness of Mr. Marsh’s statement was proved by the professor of the Mining Institute Anatoly Ryabinin, who in 1912 examined the bone delivered to him and determined that it was part of the hind limb of a carnivorous dinosaur. This was the first “reliable find of a terrestrial chalk reptile in the continental deposits of our country.”

Anatoly Ryabinin conducted prospecting and exploration work for oil and silver-lead ores in the Caucasus: he was an employee of the main geological institution of our country (the Geological Committee) and a member of the Imperial St. Petersburg Mineralogical Society. But he gained particular significance and high authority in scientific circles precisely as a specialist in a broad range of vertebrate fossils. Since 1908, he concentrated on the topic of terrestrial reptiles of the Late Mesozoic and laid the foundation for their systematic study in Russia. Therefore, there was no surprise that the remains were sent to him in Petrograd.

It should be noted that while Ryabinin is well known among Russian paleontologists, the name of the person who, during the expedition to the Tarbagatai mines, explored the Transbaikal brown coal deposits and discovered that very bone, was forgotten. This was Konstantin Egorov. The discoverer of dinosaurs on the territory of our country was a graduate of two St. Petersburg institutes: Mining and Archeological. He conducted research in the Middle and Southern Urals, actively collaborated with the Museum of the Imperial Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, and participated in the formation of collections in mineralogy and paleontology.

From that moment, inspired by the first success, Russian geologists began to purposefully look for “Russian dinosaurs” and send their “treasures” to Ryabinin. Some of them did turn out to be important specimens.

Just a couple of years later, Geolcom’s adjunct geologist Afrikan Krishtofovich brought Ryabinin a bone that was found on the right bank of the Amur River. The scientist found out that it was the tibia of a dinosaur. Nothing of the kind in Russia and on the adjacent territory of China until this moment has been met.

Further excavations on the Amur River yielded significant material: in 1916-1917, several tens of poods of dinosaur bones were removed, which allowed Anatoly Ryabinin “to raise the question of the desirability of mounting them in the Museum at Geolcom.”

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Фото © Charles R. Knight, Википедия

The largest number of finds belonged to the Praedentata group (ornithischian dinosaurs): vertebrae, parts of the upper and lower jaws, and bones of the anterior and posterior girdle of the limbs. Over time, it was possible to concretize the belonging of the lizards to the Trachodontidae family (giant duck-billed dinosaurs of the North American type). The species, once inhabited on our continent, got its own name Mandschurosaurus amurensis.

The scientist set the task of making a complete dinosaur skeleton from scattered parts. It took years. To study extinct animals, Ryabinin took a number of business trips to Germany, Belgium and England, where he got acquainted with the materials stored in foreign museums. Only in 1925, the paleontologist began to reconstruct the platypus skeleton, supplementing the lost fragments with plaster. It was so huge that it could not be kept in the Mining Museum, and was placed in the museum of the Karpinsky Research Geological Institute.

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Фото © vsegei.ru

Over the years of his research, the paleontologist has described many dinosaurs, turtles and pterosaurs from Kazakhstan, Transbaikalia and the Amur basin. At the same time, the scientist continued to work on forecasting and exploration of mineral deposits: in Turkestan, Altai, the Baltic States, Crimea, Kazakhstan, the Apsheron Peninsula and the Urals. He was looking for oil and silver-lead ores in the Caucasus, iron ores in the Vladimir province, copper and lead deposits in Kyrgyzstan.

In 1921, Ryabinin was promoted to professor of paleontology at the Mining Institute and at the same time he headed the Geological Committee, within which he supervised the study of the geological structure of the country and the study of the mineral resources of its bowels.

Only few of Ryabinin’s students and colleagues knew that in his youth he was an active participant in revolutionary activities: he was in the governing center of the Kokhomsky Workers’ Union and the editorial board of Pravda; together with Nadezhda Krupskaya he worked at the Obukhovskaya evening and Sunday school. He was arrested twice and sent into exile to Tiflis, then to Nolinsk, Vyatka province, and a little later, to Vyatka itself. During his exile, he was engaged in literary creation. In the book of original poems by Anatoly Ryabinin, which came out under the title “After the Thunderstorm,” there are such lines:

Have you heard it? Hill-men know

That inhabit grottos gnomes;

That are full with many treasures

Their underground mansions!

- Oh my friend! When will you come off

listening this utter rubbish?

No treasures; even iron

One can’t find ever here!

- Utter rubbish! You say so!

What a sober suggestion!

No, my dear! Far too boring

Would be living in the wide world!

For many years, the remains of dinosaurs as a whole were “hiding” from Russian scientists, which caused only sarcasm and gloating among paleontologists in America and Asia. The finds were only isolated fragments of bones and teeth. Only in 1999, in the southeast of the Amur Region, was found an almost complete skeleton of a 12-meter hadrosaurus from the genus Olorotitan (literal translation is “titanium swan”). It was the first naturally articulated dinosaur discovered in Russia. Today, as a unique example of paleozoology, it is exhibited in the museum of the Royal Institute of Natural Sciences of Belgium.

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Фото © Общественное достояние, Скелет Амурозавра в Брюсселе