Nuremberg, 220 million years ago: a herd of plateosaurs roams the landscape in search of juicy plants or a watering hole.
220 million, eighteen hundred and 34 years later, Johann Friedrich Engelhardt came across the fossilised remains of an animal.
Engelhardt sent the bones to Frankfurt – specifically, to Germany’s leading expert on vertebrates at the time, one Hermann von Meyer. Based on just those few bone fragments, von Meyer realised that he must be dealing with a species that had never before been described.
At that time, no dinosaur remains had yet been discovered in Central Europe. On the other hand, there had been several finds in England, and people had come up with the idea that large reptiles must have populated the Earth during some earlier period. Hermann von Meyer recognised the bone fragments presented to him as reptilian and – like his English fellow scientists – classified this new find as a lizard or a saurian.
Von Meyer described the animal and immortalised its finder, Johann Friedrich Engelhardt, in the name he assigned to the species: Plateosaurus Engelhardti. Though it’s unclear what Meyer had in mind with the term "plateo". The meaning of the Greek word "platy" for "broad", as in "broad path" or "place" is probably somehow linked to the idea of the reptile’s enormous size.
It’s amazing that, faced with such a small number of skeletal remains, Hermann von Meyer was able to recognise the uniqueness of the finds. Not only that: he also notionally assembled them into an entire organism – albeit one that in many respects remained hypothetical. However, additional finds soon confirmed his assumption, and ultimately, it became possible to reconstruct the entire skeleton.
The original first finds in the display are on long-term loan from the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg.