Up Inside Historic Dinosaurs

Written by Dr Emma Nicholls, Deputy Keeper of Natural History at the Horniman Museum and Gardens.

On the 15th September of this year, I decided to fight my urge to avoid the weekend trains and travelled across London to Crystal Palace Park. Oh my word am I glad I did, it was the best day out ever! They were holding a weekend of Dinosaur Days (the D-word being the second most likely thing to get me out of bed, after the R-word*) which encompassed a number of presentations/talks and some guided tours of the islands, normally off limits to the public. These islands are home to life-size models of dinosaurs, pterosaurs, marine reptiles, and a few prehistoric mammals, that were created in 1854. What makes these 150+ year old animals particularly exceptional, is that they are ginormous, detailed, awe-inspiring, physical historic ‘monuments’ to extinct megafaunas. What I mean to say, is that they are giant physical snapshots of what scientists in the mid 1850’s thought these animals would have looked like. Jurassic Park wouldn’t be out for another 139 years** so scientists had to use what few bones had been found by that point (the term ‘Dinosauria‘ was only coined in the early 1840s) to recreate this prehistoric world.

Even now, with all our technological advancements and over 150 years of extra fossil discoveries since the so-named ‘Dinosaur Court’ was built, us palaeontologists still can’t be 100% sure of what they looked like in life. For species with the more complete skeletal discoveries, such as Iguanodon, we can be fairly certain of many aspects of the animal’s anatomy and morphology (skin-tone and cartilaginous elements are more tricky), whilst other species remain more elusive. In the 1850s, it was thought that Iguanodon was an obligate quadruped with a spike on the nose (rather than the thumbs). Their appearance, like their name suggests, was thought to be akin to a modern iguana.

A sun-bathing Iguanodon. Or is that ‘giant iguana’? © E Nicholls.

An amazing presentation by palaeoartist Mark Witton demonstrated the extensive and diverse scientific research that artists use when creating palaeoart. Much more than aesthetic images, palaeoartists create scientifically backed reconstructions that are key to our understanding of past ecosystems. Another talk was by the ridiculously prolific Darren Naish, of TetZoo, called The Dinosaurs of Crystal Palace: Among the Most Accurate Renditions of Prehistoric Life Ever Made, now in blog format for you to read for yourself. The article does a fantastic job of providing extensive detail about the animals, their surroundings, and the history of the Park, so I won’t repeat it here. However, in case you don’t make it over there, one nugget of information which I think you definitely should know is that these statues are Grade 1 listed! They are an irreplaceable national treasure and a key puzzle piece in the history of palaeontology and science, as well as the history of London itself. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were regular visitors in their day, and many famous names are attached to the history of these statues.

Darren Naish wowing audiences on his tour of the Crystal Palace Park islands, at the ‘Dinosaur Day’ event in September 2018. © E Nicholls.

The huge, listed statues are built primarily of brick with huge metal supporting rods inside. How do I know? Being a scientist I had to check it out for myself, which resulted in what is possibly my best profile picture of all time:

It’s not every day you get to put your head up an Iguanodon. © E. Nicholls / G. Witton-Maclean.

The dinosaurs, pterosaurs, mammals and marine reptiles are free to visit and to my personal daily delight, are visible from my train to work (in the winter at least, when excessive foliage along the tracks doesn’t ruin everything). The fact that they are free is superb and makes them a gem in London’s crown which is accessible to everyone. On the other hand however, this means there is zero money coming in to maintain them. Sadly, miscreant whipper snappers occasionally climb their way (over fences and along the tiny plank-like bridge) onto the islands and vandalise the statues, meaning they need even more conservation and protection than that required due to just weather and the passage of time. A couple of the smaller statues have even been stolen; /shakes head at the Homo sapien species in general/. The good news is that the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs have come up with a plan to raise funds, which is to create a proper bridge, to enable them to lead tours onto the island; for the public, schools, etc, to enthuse, enthral, and educate. The bridge will presumably be as secure as it can be to deter vandals, but in the summer months they can walk across the lake anyway, which dries up in the summer sun. So a way to increase cash flow is desperately needed. Due to the importance of these wonders and the urgent need to protect them, the Geological Curators’ Group asked their members for permission to make a donation to this cause, which was emphatically agreed at the AGM last week. There is an auction with items ending over the next few days, but anyone can donate straight to the cause; the closing date is this weekend though so, in case you’re interested, I’m just going to leave this here: https://www.spacehive.com/bridges-to-the-crystal-palace-dinosaurs

* We all have our passions, mine is the rhinoceros

** And we all know how accurate those dinosaurs are

3 thoughts on “Up Inside Historic Dinosaurs

  1. Well done Emma. Excellent and informative article by a renowned expert in her field, along with some wonderful pictures. I first visited the Crystal Palace dinosaurs in 1962 and still have my copy of the official souvenir pamphlet entitled ‘150,000,000 B.C’ (published by the London County Council) to prove it.

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