The Crystal Palace monsters, armoured tyrannosaurs and lurking sauropods: a look back at 'Dinosaurs - A Historical Perspective' (part I)

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So, was it really 'the best conference of all time'? Hmm, maybe, but it was excellent and all went well (more or less). On May 6th and 7th I attended 'Dinosaurs (and other extinct saurians) - A Historical Perspective', a meeting featuring a packed schedule of talks and posters devoted to Mesozoic fossil reptiles and how they've been discovered and interpreted. Ably abetted by John Conway yet again, I made it to London on time for the field trip on the 5th to the Crystal Palace animals, and on the 8th and 9th went on a trip to the Isle of Wight (going both into the field and to Dinosaur Isle museum). There were also trips to the Dorset coast, but I couldn't go on those. A nicely illustrated book of extended abstracts was produced (Moody et al. 2008: cover shown below) and anyone seriously interested in this meeting should make efforts to obtain one (a technical volume, published by the Geological Society of London and including multiple contributions from the meeting, is in preparation). Anyway, what happened? Well...

I regret that I'm not going to write proper reviews, commenting on each presentation at length, as there were an awful lot of them and I don't have the time: look how long the discussion of the CEE conference 'Modern Approaches to Functional Anatomy' turned out. But I'm writing all this before finishing the piece you're now reading, so these may be famous last words (PS - they were).

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The event began with a day-trip to the Crystal Palace models at Sydenham, ably guided by Richard Moody and Mike Howgate. I've seen the Crystal Palace animals several times now, but it seems that there's always something new I haven't noticed before. This time round, it was the fact that the ichthyosaur's flippers display not only a tightly packed pavement of bony ossicles on their dorsal surfaces, but also parallel rods along their leading edges (you can clearly see them in the adjacent photo). Richard Owen - who advised Waterhouse Hawkins on the reconstructions - described these features in a well-preserved ichthyosaur forefin (see Martin et al. 1996, Motani 1999): everyone knows about the tightly packed ossicle pavement, but the cartilaginous and/or keratinous rod-like accessory structures are less familiar. Why are they visible on the Crystal Palace ichthyosaurs when, in life, they would have been embedded within the soft tissue of the fin? Steve McCarthy has explained that these details were deliberately depicted as if seen in x-ray. In other words, they're used as a visual, educational device. This also explains why the sclerotic rings are visible (McCarthy & Gilbert 1994). Incidentally, while labelled as Ichthyosaurus, the Crystal Palace ichthyosaurs are better imagined as Temnodontosaurus.

If you don't know, the Crystal Palace animals include Iguanodon, Megalosaurus, Hylaeosaurus, dicynodonts (depicted as turtle-like shelled animals), 'labyrinthodonts' (reconstructed as short-tailed newt-like creatures), pterodactyls, a Megatherium hugging a tree, Megaloceros, anoplotheres, palaeotheres, a mosasaur, teleosaurids, ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs. Cycads, specially placed outcrops (always made of the same rock as that which has yielded the associated animals) and a geological section also form part of the display. Unfortunately the models are routinely vandalised: spikes and tail tips are missing from some of the dinosaurs, and the two smaller pterodactyls - which were recently recreated after having been destroyed during World War II - were destroyed again within the last year and are absent once more [image below shows one of the iguanodons from behind, a view you don't see very often].

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On to the talks. We had two days of these, and here I'm going to discuss what happened on day one (May 6th). Hugh Torrens spoke about William Perceval Hunter (1812-1878), a forgotten naturalist who commented on Megalosaurus and Iguanodon during the 1830s, and Federico Fanti told us about the efforts of Giovanni Capellini (1833-1922). Capellini's amazingly detailed colour illustrations, strong support of Darwin's and Lyell's work, and great efforts to obtain skeletons, models and specimens revolutionised the understanding and teaching of palaeontology in Italy. Darren Naish (me) discussed various obscure Wealden dinosaur specimens and the stories behind them. The Hastings Beds Group theropod Becklespinax and the Wessex Formation sauropods Ornithopsis and Chondrosteosaurus played important early roles in ideas about dinosaur pneumaticity; an iguanodontian excavated from East Sussex in 1909 has been suggested as the catalyst that led to the perpetration of the Piltdown man hoax; and the 1895 discovery of an iguanodontian found 27 m underground during the excavation of a well invites the speculation that the site concerned (Capel in Surrey) might contain a Bernissart-like trove of multiple specimens. More on all of this when the paper gets published.

Anthony Brook reviewed Gideon Mantell's contribution to our knowledge of dinosaurs, and Mike Howgate discussed William Swinton (1900-1994), the author of the first book devoted solely to dinosaurs (The Dinosaurs of 1934), and an important populariser of dinosaurs and palaeontology between the 1930s and 60s. Valerie Bramwell spoke about the life and times of one of her ancestors, Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (1807-1894). Valerie showed a number of unpublished (or, at least, unfamiliar) Hawkins sketches and illustrations: the most memorable depicting St. George's battle with the dragon, the 'dragon' being a giant pterodactyl!

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Jeff Liston and Leslie Noè reviewed the discoveries of Alfred Leeds (1847-1917), famous for his incredible collection of Oxford Clay marine reptiles, dinosaurs and other fossils. Particular attention was given to the sauropod Cetiosauriscus stewarti (long thought to be a diplodocoid but recently suggested to be a mamenchisaurid), and to BMNH R2903, a spherical object from the Oxford Clay first identified as a reptile egg and still the subject of uncertainty. Mike P. Taylor looked at the 'evolution' of sauropods from their 1841 discovery to the present. That's a lot to discuss. People particularly enjoyed his review of the 'aquatic' phase, mostly because some of the artwork is so iconic and memorable. As Mike showed, it's also repetitive, with the same little red pterosaur and submerged 'lurker' sauropod popping up again and again. Most memorable line (said in connection with Hay's and Tornier's idea that sauropods sprawled like giant lizards: see adjacent image, from Hay 1910): 'Those early palaeontologists sure were morons'.

Eric Buffetaut discussed 'spinosaurs before Stromer': African spinosaurine teeth had been reported in 1905 but misidentified as those of a fish, and Portugese baryonychine teeth were described in 1896-1897. During the 1820s, both Cuvier and Mantell discussed and figured teeth from the Wealden that can now be identified as those of baryonychines. Suchosaurus, named by Owen in 1841 for baryonychine teeth then identified as crocodilian, obviously predates Baryonyx but the poor type material means that it would be unwise to use the older name, plus in any case we can't be completely sure that Suchosaurus and Baryonyx represent the same baryonychine taxon.

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Brent Breithaupt gave an outstanding talk on Dynamosaurus imperiosus, a tyrannosaurid discovered by Barnum Brown in 1900 and named by Osborn in 1905 (the same paper where Tyrannosaurus rex was named; D. imperiosus has of course turned out to be a T. rex specimen, the associated 'dermal plates' being ankylosaur scutes that may represent the animal's last meal). Sent in 1960 to the British Museum (Natural History), the 'Dynamosaurus' specimen was used to create an impressive half-mount, with the animal posed horizontally. I recall seeing images of this mount as a kid (I never got to see it myself: the NMH was without a dinosaur display when I used to visit it as a child) but have never found published photos. Brent and colleagues have been working to find the original Wyoming quarry where 'Dynamosaurus' was found: a recent claim that more material of the same specimen had been recovered is clearly incorrect.

Dave Martill covered changing perceptions about the sizes of pterosaurs. Because the first Solnhofen pterosaurs were small animals with wingspans less than 45 cm, Dimorphodon, with a wingspan of c. 1.4 m, challenged perceptions when first described (as Pterodactylus macronyx) in 1829. Mantell's fragmentary Wealden pterosaurs - identified by him as belonging to birds allied to herons - prove useful and informative and have been re-evaluated. When James Scott Bowerbank was confronted with pterosaur bones from the English Chalk suggesting wingspans of between 1.8 and 2.7 m, he assumed that he had truly gigantic members of the group, but Richard Owen was harshly critical of Bowerbank and downright nasty to him (even though he agreed with him). Dave's talk stopped at the 1870 description of Pteranodon, and the story of giant pterosaurs after Pteranodon was told on Mark Witton's poster [Mark and poster shown in image below]. This included the first 'conference' outing of Mark's outstanding picture of Hatzegopteryx drawn to scale with a person (for more go here).

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Martin Whyte and Mike Romano spoke about dinosaur tracks and bone fragments from the Middle Jurassic Ravenscar Group of Yorkshire and Mike Milne (director of computer animation at Framestore) reviewed the history of the 'Walking With' projects, explaining along the way how the extinct animals were reconstructed and animated. Mike explained that Walking With Dinosaurs and its sequels represent a golden age, the likes of which we will never see again. Falling viewer figures and audience familiarity with CG creatures have killed the genre, hence the switch to drama series like ITV's Primeval. Mike didn't expect those of us in the audience to be familiar with things like 'future predator' (oh. Go here), but I think he assumed that we are better people than we are.

So that was the first day. Wine receptions, Chinese meals and pubs followed afterwards but they've dissolved into a blur and all I'm sure about is that I didn't get enough sleep.... More very soon, dammit.

Refs - -

Hay, O. P. 1910. On the manner of locomotion of the dinosaurs especially Diplodocus, with remarks on the origin of the birds. Proceedings of the Washington Academy of Sciences 12, 1-25.

Martin, J., Frey, E. & Riess, J. 1986. Soft tissue preservation in ichthyosaurs and a stratigraphic review of the Lower Hettangian of Barrow-Upon-Soar, Leicestershire. Transactions Leicester Literary & Philosophical Society 80, 58-72.

McCarthy, S. & Gilbert, M. 1994. The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs: The Story of the World's First Prehistoric Sculptures. The Crystal Palace Foundation, London.

Moody, R., Buffetaut, E., Martill, D. & Naish, D. (eds) 2008. Dinosaurs (and other extinct saurians) - A Historical Perspective. The Geological Society of London, London.

Motani, R. 1999. On the evolution and homologies of ichthyopterygian forefins. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 19, 28-41.

More like this

No more walking withs!?! *tear*

I was hoping for some more Prehistoric Parks...

Sounds like an awesome conference. Can't wait to see what Darren Tanke's Mount Temple exploits are shaping up to these days. Look forward to part 2!

Mike explained that Walking With Dinosaurs and its sequels represent a golden age, the likes of which we will never see again. Falling viewer figures and audience familiarity with CG creatures have killed the genre, hence the switch to drama series like ITV's Primeval.

That's too sad. The Walking with ... series had its faults, yet it's got to be the most exciting science-related thing I've ever seen on TV.

By Andreas Johansson (not verified) on 12 May 2008 #permalink

Good summaries there, Darren; the range of topics/approaches at the conference was indeed very wide.

If CG has had its day, then that's not all bad, I reckon. It just leaves the field encouragingly open for people who might like to... oh, I don't know... maybe build a reasonably realistic, say, stegosaur costume... and willing to inhabit the same for a few hours while being filmed. How hard can it be?

(Will forward some detailed questions to you on stegosaurus soon, Darren. How useful it is that you know so much stuff! I'm having trouble locating the Greg Paul restoration...)


By Graham King (not verified) on 12 May 2008 #permalink

I haven't read the post yet, but I just wanted to say it's cool to see Darren lookin' all gangsta in front of the Geological Society. Yeah yeah boy! Your rap name should be MC Tetra Z.


By Stevo Darkly (not verified) on 12 May 2008 #permalink

He's just keepin' it real, son.


By Stevo Darkly (not verified) on 12 May 2008 #permalink

We're still writing dino series at Impossible Pictures (as Darren well knows), so don't give up hope of seeing more Walking With.. type shows just yet. As a matter of fact i'm writing supposed to be writing one instead of commenting on tetzoo, better get back to it.

By carpworld (not verified) on 13 May 2008 #permalink

Wow, sounds like a great conference.
How would I go about getting hold of the book?

Darren said: "Mike Howgate discussed William Swinton (1900-1994), the author of the first book devoted solely to dinosaurs (The Dinosaurs of 1934)"

Really? What about this book:

Matthew, William Diller. 1915. Dinosaurs: with special reference to the American museum collections. American Museum of Natural History, New York. 162 pages.

Hmm, ok. Well, maybe it was the first British book devoted to dinosaurs, I can't remember.

The funny thing is, the BM(NH) stopped selling it after a single letter of complaint (the lady who wrote the letter argued how inappropriate it was that a member of museum staff was making money from his position).

The Swinton volume was the first commercially published dinosaur book. The Matthew publication was an AMNH in-house production.

By Dan Varner (not verified) on 13 May 2008 #permalink