Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. He is the author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), Dragons: A Natural History (1995), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), The Unexplained (1996), From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (1997), Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), The Hidden Powers of Animals (2001), The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013), The Menagerie of Marvels (2014), A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), Here's Nessie! (2016), and what is widely considered to be his cryptozoological magnum opus, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016) - plus, very excitingly, his first two long-awaited, much-requested ShukerNature blog books (2019, 2020).

Dr Karl Shuker's Official Website - http://www.karlshuker.com/index.htm

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Thursday 24 June 2021


My newly-acquired copy of a fascinating book that I've been seeking for years An Unkindness of Ravens: A Book of Collective Nouns by Chloe Rhodes, first published in 2014 by Michael O'Mara Books Limited (© Chloe Rhodes/Michael O'Mara Books Limited – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

As both a quizzer and a zoologist, when attending quizzes I am always expected by my team mates to know each and every one of the countless (in)famous, often highly-imaginative, and sometimes zoologically-nonsensical collective nouns for animals that seem to occur regularly but exclusively in quizzes (as they rarely if ever occur in formal zoological writings or anywhere else, for that matter!).

These weird, tortuous terms include everything from a murder of crows, a wisdom of wombats, a pandemonium of parrots, a nye of pheasants, a business (or fesnyng) of ferrets, a charm of nightingales, an embarrassment of pandas, and an unkindness of ravens, to a troubling of goldfishes, an ambush of tigers (despite tigers being solitary animals!), an exaltation of larks, a tower of giraffes, an army of frogs, a smack of jellyfishes, a fever of stingrays, and a kettle of vultures (when circling), to mention but a very few of the vast array of such examples in existence. But what are the origins of these nightmarish nouns? I once had a golden opportunity to find out, but I let it slip through my fingers – until very recently, that is. Here's how.

Several years ago, I saw in one of those Booksale cut-price book/stationery shops that are present in most towns here in England, a small hardback book actually devoted specifically to collective nouns and providing extensively-researched accounts revealing their numerous, exceedingly varied origins. I spent quite a while perusing this book with great interest, yet, oddly, I didn't buy it, even though it wasn't expensive. Me being me, however, by the time that I'd arrived back home I was already regretting not having done so, but when I returned to the shop a couple of days later to buy the book, it had gone (in fact, there had been about four copies of it there on my previous visit, but during those two crucial, intervening days they had all been sold).

Despite checking in numerous Booksale shops in a number of different towns since then, I never saw it again, and because I'd neglected to note its title and author, I was unable to track it down online either. All that I could recall was that it was a small paperback-sized hardback with a black cover and that it had been published several years ago. And then came yesterday morning...

A kindle of kittens (© William M. Rebsamen)

That was when I was visiting a local car boot sale (England's equivalent to yard sales in the States), where at one stall all of the books, CDs, and DVDs were three for £1, mix 'n' match. I chose one DVD straight away (a sci fi-themed movie new to me entitled Time Shifters), but struggled to find anything else to complete the required trio of purchases. Eventually I found a second DVD, but no other DVDs there were of even remote interest to me, nor were the CDs or the books.

Then I noticed that a pile of books was almost hidden underneath a large box at the front of this stall, so I moved the box to look at the books. And there, right on the top of the pile, was a small hardback book with a black shiny cover, whose silver-lettered title read as follows: An Unkindness of Ravens: A Book of Collective Nouns. It was written by Chloe Rhodes and published in 2014. As soon as I opened it, and perused a few of the pages, I realised that this was indeed THE long-lost book on collective nouns that I'd been seeking ever since that ill-fated day when I'd failed to buy it in the Booksale shop! Needless to say, I quickly paid my £1 and put the two DVDs and my prodigal book safely in my carrier bag. Result!

I've started to browse through An Unkindness of Ravens, and can honestly say that it is one of the most fascinating and joyously quirky books that I've had the good fortune to read for many a long while. The Library Angel and the Seraph of Serendipity were certainly looking down upon me with great benevolence when I elected to move that  car boot stall's large box on the off-chance that the books underneath it may include something of worth!

After I had posted on my Facebook group 'Animal Discoveries and Curiosities' later that same day some details concerning my fortuitous literary find, they soon came to the attention of longstanding FB friend and University of Nottingham philosophy lecturer/researcher Ian James Kidd, who suggested a few apt and amusing cryptozoology-themed collective nouns. Namely:

A flutter of Mothmen different interpretations of Mothman, by Swedish artist Richard Svensson (© Richard Svensson)

A flutter of Mothmen.

A hump of Nessies.

A paucity of dodos.

A shower of frogs (Forteans will particularly appreciate this one!).

A trek of cryptozoologists.

A wake of sea serpents (Heuvelmans-inspired).

After reading these, cryptozoological enthusiast Curt Gleason proffered a very apposite one of his own:

A storm of thunderbirds.

A thunderbird (© Tim Morris)

Moreover, I was inspired to devise some too. After all, as virtually every known animal that you can think of has been allocated a collective noun, why shouldn't unknown and legendary animals receive the same courtesy? So here is a brief listing of collective nouns that I have duly coined for various mystery and mythical beasts:

An ambivalence of amphisbaenas.

An atmosphere of sky beasts.

An avalanche of yetis.

An awakening of krakens.

A beaching of Gambos (and Trunkos – but also see later here).

A bewilderment of bunyips.

A bigfootery of sasquatches.

A bloodlust of vampires.

A bottle of homunculi.

A composite of chemosits (or Nandi bears).

A conflagration of dragons.

A confusion of basking sharks (identifiers of supposed sea serpent carcases will appreciate this one!).

A curse of werewolves (or a lurking of lycanthropes?).

A decapitation of waheelas.

A deception of perytons (these carnivorous winged stags cast human shadows).

A dinsdale of leviathans (in homage to the late Tim Dinsdale who wrote a very influential book on aquatic monsters entitled The Leviathans).

A discombobulation of dingoneks.

A doom of Black Dogs.

A drowning of kappas.

An evanescence (or elusiveness) of mystery cats.

A ferocity of dobhar-chús (aka Irish master otters).

A (tri)foliation of Green Men (© Dr Karl Shuker)

A foliation of Green Men.

A fraudulence of Feejee Mermaids.

A furnace of salamanders.

A gallop of pookas (and kelpies).

A glowing of ropens.

A goat-bothering of chupacabras.

A gorging of Gévaudan Beasts.

A haranguing of harpies.

A hoard of griffins (griffins were famous hoarders of gold).

A hoot of Owlmen.

A horror of Lizard Men.

An impossibility of Trunkos.

An improbability of thylacines (which I coined a while ago for a chapter on this 'officially' extinct yet frequently reported wolf-like marsupial in my book ShukerNature Book 2).

An inebriation of satyrs.

A joke of jackalopes.

A jungle of orang pendeks.

A majesty of king cheetahs.

A malombo of mokele-mbembes.

A mansi of Champs (after the famous Sandra Mansi photo of what may have been the Lake Champlain monster).

A menace of manticores.

A merriment of mer-folk.

A shock of Mongolian death worms (© Philippa Foster)

A minion of minotaurs.

A neck of Megalotarias (Heuvelmans's long-necked seal category of sea serpent).

An oddity of onzas.

An ogling of Ogopogos.

A panic of Big Grey Men of Ben MacDhui.

A petrification of gorgons.

A reverie of blue tigers.

A shock of Mongolian death worms.

A shriek of mandrakes.

A singularity of Questing Beasts (there's only one!).

A somnolence of sirens.

A squadron of rocs (or rukhs).

A stench of skunk apes (and mapinguaris).

A strangeness of nundas ('nunda' is Swahili for 'strange one').

A tradition of tatzelworms.

A trickery of tengus.

A twinning of centaurs (which are half-human, half-horse).

An undulation of sea serpents (a fair few known animals lay claim to more than one collective noun, so both mine and Ian's can be used for sea serpents) or Irish horse eels.

A vanishing of vorounpatras (and tratratratras).

A wilderness of wodewoses.

A wonder of waitorekes.

A trickery of tengus (public domain)

And last but certainly not least:

A concealment of cryptids.

Incidentally, there actually is an officially-recognised collective noun for unicorns – a blessing, which came up in a pub quiz once.

No doubt I'll think up more cryptozoology- and zoomythology-themed collective nouns as time goes by, and when I do, I'll include them here. So be sure to check back from time to time and see the latest additions to this list. Who knows, some of them may even catch on and become officially-accepted terms!

If so, you read them here first!

Postscript: I've just discovered that a couple of books on collective nouns for animals have also been published in the USA. These are: An Exaltation of Larks: The Ultimate Edition (1991) by James Lipton, and A Murmuration of Starlings: The Collective Nouns of Animals and Birds (2013) by Steve Palin.

Also well worthy of note are A Barrel of Monkeys: A Compendium of Collective Nouns For Animals (2015) by Samuel Fanous and Susie Dent, A Charm of Goldfinches and Other Collective Nouns (2016) by Matt Sewell, and A Dazzle of Flamboyance: An ABC of Collective Nouns For Groups of Animals (2020) by Wendy Hayden.

I think it highly likely that at least some of these volumes will be winging their way to me very shortly, to add to my newly-acquired one. A veritable collection of collective noun books, no less!

One of the strangest of all collective nouns for animals – a fesnyng of ferrets (but also known more memorably as a business); this bizarre word dates back as far as the 15th Century (© John Owens/Wikipedia – CC BY 2.5 licence)



Tuesday 22 June 2021


The dream that died – a 19th-Century engraving depicting Hawkins's planned Palaeozoic Museum for New York City; how magnificent it would have been (public domain)

In Parts 1 and 2 of this ShukerNature blog article (click here and here to access them), we paid a virtual, verbal visit to the ancient mammals and especially the enormous dinosaurs and other prehistoric herpetological creatures that are immortalized at Dinosaur Court in Crystal Palace Park, southeast London, via a series of artistically magnificent (albeit nowadays palaeontologically inaccurate) statues.

These were the first such statues ever created – dating back to 1853/4 – and were reconstructed by eminent British sculptor and artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins under the guidance of Britain's foremost zoologist and palaeontologist at that time, Prof. Sir Richard Owen. Today, we turn our attention to the ongoing peril faced by these monumental wonders from a deadly combination of environmental and vandal-induced vicissitudes, as well as recalling Hawkins's tragically ill-fated American adventure.

Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (public domain)

In recent times, the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs have hit the news headlines for a variety of different reasons – some good, some not so good. Sadly, the most notable instance falls into the latter category. In May 2020, media reports worldwide revealed the shocking news that the nose and jaw tips of the magnificent Megalosaurus dinosaur statue had broken off. Photos accompanying these reports presented in stark close-up detail the severity of the damage, but opinions were mixed as to its cause. The Metropolitan Police were treating it as vandalism (and there are plenty of precedents with these statues to explain this view), whereas some historians noted that the nose and jaw tips had broken off along pre-existing fracture lines, thus suggesting that it may have happened naturally.

Indeed, when I read the reports I was reminded of a brief but prophetic observation made in a Tetrapod Zoology blog article of 11 December 2018 by British palaeontologist Dr Darren Naish following his visit to Dinosaur Court in September 2018 during its annual Open Day weekend there in which visitors were allowed the rare privilege of stepping forth onto the actual islands where Hawkins's statues stand, thereby enabling them to be viewed at much closer range than is normally possible. In his article, he stated: "…sections of the megalosaur’s nose look like they could fall off at any moment".

Hawkins's monumental Megalosaurus statue, photographed by me during my visit to Crystal Palace Park on 22 April 2010, when its nose and jaw tips were still intact (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Happily, however, in May 2021 Hawkins's Megalosaurus statue was restored to its former glory when it received a specially-created 'prosthetic jaw' and 22 teeth. The intricate restoration work that had created and fitted them had been financed by a grant from Historic England's Culture Recovery Fund plus support from Bromley Council and donations generated via fundraising carried out by the charity FOCPD – Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs (more about this sterling organization later).

Certainly, following direct outdoor exposure to the elements for almost 170 years, many of Hawkins's statues, especially the larger ones, sport a distressing array of fractures, fissures, cracks, and breaks, and are in danger of losing toes, tails, teeth, and antlers. The distal region of the tail of his Hylaeosaurus dinosaur statue, for example, is already severed from the remainder of it. And at much the same time as the Megalosaurus disfigurement took place in May 2020, the antlers of the two Irish elk stags were also damaged, although this may have been due to the prevailing high winds.

Also snapped by me during my 2010 visit to Crystal Palace Park were these three photographs of Hawkins's two magnificent Irish elk stags with still-intact antlers (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Ironically, less than three months previously, in late February 2020, Historic England had announced that the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs were being added to its Heritage at Risk Register.

Speaking of Hylaeosaurus: many years after its statue had been created by Hawkins, the head either fell off of its own accord or had to be removed because its great weight was causing the statue's neck to snap (accounts differ), and a lightweight fibreglass replica was added in its place. Happily, however, the original head was preserved, and can still be seen, mounted upon a special inset plaque on the ground, but sited some distance away from the rest of this statue.

The mounted original head of Hawkins's Hylaeosaurus statue (© MrsEllacott/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)

In my view, however, undoubtedly the most devastating damage wrought upon any of Hawkins's Crystal Palace statues was suffered by the pair of smaller, Oolite pterosaurs mentioned by me yesterday in Part 2 of this ShukerNature blog article. After being on display in addition to the more famous larger pair of pterosaurs for approximately 80 years, they were destroyed sometime during the 1930s; it has been claimed that they were used as target practice when the grounds of Crystal Palace Park were being temporarily utilized as barracks. During the major restoration work that took place at Dinosaur Court in 2002, however, a gorgeous pair of golden-gleaming fibreglass replicas were installed, having been specially created by sculptor John Warne in consultation with geologist Peter Doyle and Morton Partnership. Tragically, however, they were heinously destroyed just three years later, in 2005, when vandals kicked them over and also stole their smashed fragments.

Nothing more was heard about the Oolite pterosaur replicas for almost a decade, until a blog article by Joe Cain uploaded on 18 July 2014 to the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs website sensationally revealed that their fragments had been discovered just a week previously. Although for security reasons their location was not disclosed, Joe stated that he and two colleagues had been given special access to the fragments, which enabled them to be counted and their condition assessed. Sadly, most were in poor condition, but he felt that there was enough for future work to be initiated at some stage. As for the two larger, Cretaceous pterosaurs, they have suffered a degree of damage too, including much of the long slender jaws of one of them having broken off in recent years (I was fortunate enough to see both of them fully intact back in 2010).

A 19th-Century illustration of Crystal Palace Park's Dinosaur Court, which depicts the original pair of small, subsequently-destroyed Oolite pterosaurs, arrowed (public domain)

Yet even the desecration of the Oolite pterosaurs almost pales into insignificance when compared to the nightmare of what happened to all of Hawkins's New York statues. Despite the initial success of his Dinosaur Court at London's Crystal Palace Park, the cost of the statues' creation had been prohibitive (approximately £13,750 – an enormous sum back in the 1850s). Consequently, in mid-1855 the Directors of the Crystal Palace Company, which had purchased the palace itself, had funded its removal from Hyde Park and its reassembling at Penge following the end of the Great Exhibition, and had also financed Hawkins's creation of all of the statues there, refused to provide him with any further funding to reconstruct some additional statues of extinct Cenozoic beasts that he'd wanted to display on the Court's Tertiary Island.

These were believed to include New Zealand's ostrich-like giant moa Dinornis, the Mauritius dodo, the antlered giraffid Sivatherium, a South American glyptodont (a giant armadillo-like armoured mammal with a fearsome mace-like tail), some snakes and turtles, plus a woolly mammoth, and at least one other prehistoric pachyderm too (variously claimed to be a Mastodon or a Deinotherium).

An amusing cartoon in an issue of the English satirical magazine Punch from 1855, lampooning the greatly-promoted educational benefit of Hawkins's Crystal Palace Park dinosaur statues (public domain)

Nevertheless, buoyed by the success of his existing statues at Crystal Park Palace, Hawkins subsequently launched into an even more ambitious project following a transatlantic invitation sent to him in May 1868 from Charles Green, the administrator of the Board of Commissioners of Central Park in New York City, USA. Green was well aware of how lucrative and educational the Crystal Palace dinosaurs had proved to be, attracting each year numerous paying visitors anxious to gaze upon and learn all about these prehistoric goliaths. So he offered Hawkins the opportunity to establish in Central Park a comparable attraction, but this time in the form of a unique museum that would house a diverse range of new life-sized statues, with especial emphasis upon prehistoric creatures of the New World.

Hawkins readily agreed to do so, dubbing this major new project the Palaeozoic Museum. Among the statues that he planned to produce for it were ground sloths, glyptodonts, mastodonts, and the American plesiosaur Elasmosaurus, as well as bipedal representations of the American herbivorous duck-billed dinosaur Hadrosaurus and carnivorous tyrannosaurid dinosaur Laelaps [now Dryptosaurus], plus the Eurasian giant deer or Irish elk Megaloceros giganteus, a species that he had already constructed for London's Dinosaur Court, and also New Zealand's giant moa Dinornis, which he had been prevented from constructing for the Court.

Ensconced within New York City's Central Park, Hawkins's studio in 1869, containing Hadrosaurus and Irish elk statues (public domain)

Hawkins set up a workshop studio in Central Park, and by early 1871 he had created several statues and the moulds for several more when disaster struck. One fateful evening in spring of that same year, a team of brutish despoilers broke into his studio, with what has traditionally been believed to be the blessing of 'Boss' William Marcy Tweed an extremely rich, influential mobster in all but name. Tweed had stealthily gained control over much of New York City, including the finances of the Park, having infiltrated its Board via several corrupt Commissioners loyal to him, but according to traditional belief he had no intention of funding the museum's establishment (being neither a fan of Hawkins in particular nor of fossils in general). So his covertly-hired team's specified task was to smash, destroy, remove, and bury every statue, mould, and sketch that they could find there – a despicable crime that they carried out like palaeontological Luddites with diabolical zeal and efficiency, duly ending any prospect of Hawkins and Green founding their Palaeozoic Museum.

[UPDATE: You will have noticed, however, that when blaming Tweed for this destruction, I have twice highlighted that this is the traditional belief regarding it. In reality, however, a revelatory re-examination of the salient facts, published in a May 2023 Proceedings of the Geologists' Association paper authored by Victoria Coules of Bristol's Department of History of Art and palaeontologist Prof. Michael Benton of Bristol's School of Earth Sciences, exposes the culprit not to have been Tweed at all. Instead, the villain in question was none other than Henry Hilton, Treasurer and VP of Central Park. It turns out that Hilton made the fatal decision at a specific meeting that the statues and moulds should be destroyed, and it was he who sent out the very next day the team responsible for doing so. But why? Apparently, Hilton was a very strange, eccentric character who is already known to historians for a number of other bizarre, senseless, disreputable acts, so this wanton vandalism is entirely in keeping with his notorious reputation.]

An oil painting by Hawkins depicting New Zealand giant moas, Dinornis (public domain)

Returning to England dejected and rejected, Hawkins spent the remainder of his days painting wildlife, dying in 1894, his American dream shattered, unfulfilled. Happily, however, in London's Crystal Palace Park his visionary creations live on (in all but the most literal sense!).

Moreover, today they have a major ally and protector, in the shape of a superb charity organization called Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs or FOCPD (be sure to visit its official website here for full details concerning its founding, its aims, volunteering, donating, and so much more). FOCPD is enthusiastically supported by an eclectic range of members united by their love for Hawkins's iconic creations, drawing not just from the scientific community but from every walk of life. One of FOCPD's biggest supporters, who has extensively publicized on social media its worthy cause, is none other than Hampstead-born Saul Hudson, better known today as celebrated Guns N' Roses rock guitarist Slash.

Slash (© Raph_PH – GunsNRoses160617-41/Wikpedia – CC BY 2.0 licence)

FOCPD was specifically founded in 2013 to promote the longterm conservation of these statues plus the larger surrounding geological site, and its latest in a long line of major successes since then has been to raise the very substantial sum of money (approximately £70,000) required to design, construct, and then safely secure in place a robust lockable swing bridge, dubbed the Dino Bridge. This will exclusively enable FOCPD's workers, volunteers, and others involved in vital restoration and maintenance work here to access the islands whenever needed, but at all other times it can be locked away to prevent would-be intruders and trespassers from using it to access these statue sanctuaries.

On 13 January 2021, the Dino Bridge was formally installed, thereby marking the beginning of a major new phase in FOCPD's ongoing objective of protecting and preserving Hawkins's priceless, irreplaceable legacy – and, in so doing, maintaining interest in it. This in turn ensures not only the continuing physical survival of his creations but also that their unique scientific, historical, and artistic significance is fully understood and appreciated by current and future generations.

A view of Dinosaur Court in London's Crystal Palace Park (© Dr Karl Shuker)

For what is all too often not realized (yet is absolutely crucial to remember here) is that whereas in comparison to today's currently-accepted palaeontological reconstructions of the prehistoric beasts represented by them, Hawkins's statues are undeniably inaccurate and thoroughly outdated, they are nonetheless exceedingly accurate representations of the very limited fossil remains and attendant knowledge concerning them that were available to him back when he created them almost 170 years ago. Indeed, it is even probably fair to say that relatively speaking, Hawkins's statues are actually more precise life restorations of the fossils available to him and Owen for study than today's life restorations are of the vast array of fossils available to modern-day sculptors and artists. This is because even such visually insignificant yet taxonomically highly significant features as tooth structure were diligently replicated by Hawkins from the fossils available to him for study. So, viewed from that perspective, i.e. strictly in context, his Victorian statues not only were the earliest but also may well be the most faithful three-dimensional reconstructions of dinosaurs and other antiquated animals ever created.

This is surely a most fitting testimonial to the man who was the very first person to resurrect like a veritable naturalist of necromancy the long-dead, long-buried monsters from the vast mausoleum of our world's hitherto-unsuspected prehistoric past.

A tenacious testament to a uniquely appealing twinning of science with art – Hawkins's pioneering palaeontological statues of various aquatic prehistoric creatures at Crystal Palace Park (© CGPGrey-Wikipedia – CC BY 3.0 licence)

For further details concerning the history of Hawkins's Dinosaur Court statues and for very extensive, meticulous analyses of their morphological accuracy when compared with our present-day knowledge of the prehistoric creatures that they are based upon, I heartily recommend Crystal Palace Dinosaurs: The Story of the World's First Prehistoric Sculptures (1994), a fascinating, lavishly-illustrated book written and researched by Steve McCarthy, designed and produced by Mick Gilbert; plus the excellent online blog of British palaeontologist and palaeoartist Mark Witton (click here to access it).

In addition, my sincere thanks for sharing with me all manner of interesting, pertinent information go to Sam Crehan, Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs (FOCPD), Mandy Holloway, Dr Darren Naish, Bob Skinner, and Sebastian Wang.

Crystal Palace Dinosaurs: The Story of the World's First Prehistoric Sculptures 
by Steve McCarthy and Mick Gilbert (© Steve McCarthy/Mick Gilbert – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

But above all, I wish to dedicate this comprehensive 3-part ShukerNature article to my late mother, Mary Shuker (1921-2013), whose fascination with animals inspired my own and whose ever-present encouragement and support were crucial in helping me to achieve my lifelong ambition of becoming a zoologist. Down through the years, she had heard me speak of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs so often that when in 2010 I finally decided to brave the turmoil of London's traffic and pay them a long-promised visit at Penge, she was almost as keen to see them as I was. So naturally I took her with me, and when traversing the long and winding public pathway on the park 'mainland' that encircles their island sanctuaries, she enjoyed observing these immensely impressive statues just as much as I did.

Indeed, although during the five decades that we shared, Mom and I had travelled the world together, taking her with me to visit and view so many exotic sights that she had always wanted to see but had never thought that she would, the simple joy of our day among the dinosaurs of Crystal Palace will always remain one of my most treasured memories of our life together.

My mother Mary Shuker with Hawkins's majestic Megalosaurus and Megatherium statues in Crystal Palace Park's Dinosaur Court on 22 April 2010 (© Dr Karl Shuker)

God bless you Mom, thank you for being the best person I shall ever know – how I wish that you were still here, that you could read and enjoy this article of mine, and remember once again, as I am doing now, our happy time spent together in the company of its stately, stupendous subjects.

Finally: if you haven't already perused Parts 1 and 2 of this 3-part ShukerNature blog article on the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, please click here and here to do so.

'Jurassic Life of Europe', an 1877 oil painting by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (public domain)



Monday 21 June 2021


The Crystal Palace dinosaurs, in Views of the Crystal Palace and Park, Sydenham (1854), by Matthew Digby Wyatt with P.H. Delamotte (public domain)

Yesterday, in Part 1 of this 3-part ShukerNature blog article (click here to access it), we began a virtual, verbal tour of a veritable Lost World in leafy southeast London – Crystal Palace Park's famous Dinosaur Court. It contains a spectacular series of life-sized statues dating back to the 1850s, which had been created by English sculptor and artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins under the supervision of leading British zoologist and palaeontologist Prof. Sir Richard Owen.

They represent no fewer than 20 different species of prehistoric animal, reconstructed with varying degrees of accuracy compared to today's palaeontological counterparts, but still unmatched in terms of artistic magnificence. We have already visited the Court's Cenozoic mammals, but now, here in Part 2, we shall be viewing its most celebrated and stupendous sculptures – a menagerie of reptilian monsters from the Mesozoic Era, the Age of Reptiles, whose most familiar examples are its trio of dinosaur forms.

Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (Maull & Polyblank Wellcome/Wikipedia – CC BY 4.0 licence)

These dinosaurs, all originally known from fossils excavated in England, are represented by a statue of the Jurassic carnivorous theropod Megalosaurus bucklandi, two composite statues of the Jurassic/Cretaceous herbivorous ornithopod Iguanodon (as these were apparently based upon fossil material derived from at least two if not three different iguanodont species), and a statue of the early Cretaceous herbivorous ankylosaur Hylaeosaurus armatus. Whenever anyone talks about Crystal Palace Park's prehistoric animals, it is this exceedingly impressive quartet of stately sculptures that always comes to mind, because they absolutely epitomize the anatomical inaccuracy by present-day standards yet truly iconic, idiosyncratic grandeur of Hawkins's creations. Having said that, the dinosaurs in particular are actually not as inaccurate as they might have been, as will now be explained.

To my mind, the most magnificent of Hawkins's dinosaurs is his enormous Megalosaurus, standing aloof and majestic, the absolute monarch of Secondary Island beyond any shadow of doubt. Yet in morphological terms it resembles an incongruous hybrid of reptile and mammal. For whereas it sports an unequivocally reptilian head, vaguely crocodilian in profile, and its body is covered in scales, it also possesses a muscular, ostensibly mammalian shoulder hump, as well as four vertical, upright limbs, a typically mammalian characteristic. So how can its curiously composite form be explained?

The Crystal Palace Megalosaurus (© Dr Karl Shuker)

When in the 1820s dinosaur remains were first scientifically named, described, and recognized to be giant reptiles, some scientists assumed that they were nothing more than gigantic lizards, and illustrations dating from that time period duly depicted them as such. Consequently, had Hawkins heeded those views, he would have reconstructed his dinosaurs not only as quadrupeds (as he did do) but also as ones whose limbs splayed out laterally from their bodies, just like those of lizards do. Fortunately, however, he took his lead from Owen instead, who was convinced that far from simply being enormous lizards, the dinosaurs represented nothing less than the zenith of reptilian development. As a result, in 1841 Owen allocated them to an entirely new taxonomic suborder of reptiles, which he grandly christened Dinosauria ('terrible lizards').

Moreover, based upon his studies of those fossil remains so far disinterred, especially their mighty ribs and limb bones, Owen opined that the dinosaurs' great size would necessarily have incorporated much deeper bodies proportionately speaking than those of lizards, crocodiles, and other present-day reptiles. This in turn would have required their limbs to be sturdier and, crucially, vertical in stance, holding their heavy bodies upright just as the vertical limbs of mammals do.

My mother Mary Shuker and I with Hawkins's iconic Megalosaurus statue during our visit to Crystal Palace Park's Dinosaur Court on 22 April 2010 (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Consequently, when referring to Megalosaurus in his groundbreaking 1841 monograph on British fossil reptiles, Owen confidently stated:

From the size and form of the ribs it is evident that the trunk was broader and deeper in proportion than in modern Saurians, and it was doubtless raised from the ground upon extremities proportionally larger and especially longer, so that the general aspect of the living Megalosaur must have proportionally resembled that of the large terrestrial quadrupeds of the Mammalian class which now tread the earth.

Megalosaurus model by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, c.1852, Oxford Museum, England (© Ballista/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

It was these comments by Owen that directly influenced Hawkins's designing of Megalosaurus and, to a slightly lesser extent, his other dinosaurs too, as veritable mammalian reptiles, or reptilian mammals, depending upon which taxonomic component of their form any given observer most readily notices. In my case, it was the reptilian head and body scales of Megalosaurus that first attracted my attention, albeit followed very closely by the surprising realization of just how mammalian its body shape, stature, and stance were – almost like some bizarre coalescence of crocodile and rhinoceros, or alligator and elephant! Indeed, so many people at one time or another have likened this particular statue to a reptilian rhino that I can't help but wonder whether, instead of calling it a dinosaur, we would do better by dubbing it a rhinosaur!

Today, conversely, Megalosaurus is typically reconstructed as a bipedal dinosaur (the concept that some dinosaurs were bipedal was first raised in 1858, too late for Hawkins to utilize it with his creations), possessing longer forearms but otherwise superficially reminiscent of its mighty Cretaceous relative, Tyrannosaurus rex. This is undoubtedly a much more accurate rendition palaeontologically, but is in my opinion a far less memorable, romantic one aesthetically than the Crystal Palace version.

Hawkins's Megalosaurus statue, Crystal Palace (© CGPGrey/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

Modern-day reconstruction of Megalosaurus (Conty/Wikipedia – public domain)

In the case of the two Iguanodon statues (one constructed standing, the other reposing with one front paw resting indolently upon a reconstructed cycad), their most noticeable feature is the short pointed horn perched somewhat precariously upon the tip of their snout. Yet even Owen was by no means convinced that this structure was valid, expressing his doubts as far back as 1854, which were duly vindicated when further remains and studies revealed that this supposed 'horn' was actually a pointed thumb digit!

Also, once again their quadrupedal stance has since been supplanted, first of all by reconstructions portraying Iguanodon as habitually bipedal, but later still by the currently accepted view that it was both bipedal and quadrupedal, its stance dictated by what it needed to do at any given time.

Hawkins's two Crystal Palace Iguanodon statues (© Ian Wright/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)


Modern-day reconstruction of Iguanodon (public domain)

As for Hylaeosaurus: this is an early Cretaceous ankylosaur, which just for a change is still restored today as a quadruped. Hawkins reconstructed it as a much more lizard-like dinosaur than his quasi-mammalian Megalosaurus statue and his two Iguanodon statues, and he equipped its scaly body with an eyecatching mid-dorsal ridge of long pointed spines running from its neck down the entire length of its back to the end of its long powerful tail.

Even today, little is known of the overall appearance of Hylaeosaurus, because few remains have been uncovered (it is now recognised that Hawkins unknowingly utilized fossils from a wide range of different, but at that time undifferentiated, dinosaurs for inspiration when creating his statue of it). However, some researchers have conjectured that it may have sported not just one but several rows of these spines, bearing them laterally upon its flanks too, not only along its back – more like a reptilian porcupine, in fact, than Hawkins's giant lizard lookalike! Incidentally, its head is a modern fibreglass replica – the original was removed or fell off many years ago (further details concerning it will appear tomorrow in Part 3 of this ShukerNature blog article).

Hawkins's Crystal Palace Hylaeosaurus statue (© Simon/Wikipedia – CC BY 2.0 licence)


19th-Century engraving based upon Hawkins's Crystal Palace Hylaeosaurus statue, depicting it looking straight ahead, rather than facing away (the latter being how this statue is positioned in situ) (public domain)

Meanwhile, high upon a fabricated cliff behind the dinosaurs squat a pair of what by today's standards are decidedly strange-looking pterosaurs, with slender toothy jaws but heavily-scaled bodies, membranous bat-like wings that seem oddly oriented, erroneously avian limb posture and body shape, plus long, curved, swan-like necks. Looking up at them, I remember thinking that these winged monstrosities would not look out of place as stony gargoyles perched atop some lofty ledge on the exterior of a gothic cathedral!

The limestone cliff upon which they were originally sited was deliberately blown up during a less-than-successful park modification attempt in the 1960s. However, it was replaced during the extensive restoration work of 2002 by a new cliff, created from Derbyshire limestone, at whose summit these pterosaurs were then duly relocated.

Hawkins's Crystal Palace statues of 'Pterodactylus cuvieri' (© Ben Sutherland/Wikipedia – CC BY 2.0 licence)

In Owen's time, their species was named Pterodactylus cuvieri, but today this is believed to have been based upon remains from more than one species, and they are now deemed to be representatives of the genus Cimoliopterus. The fossils upon which they were based had been derived from British chalk deposits of the Cretaceous Period.

There was once a pair of smaller but extremely elegant pterosaur statues on display here too, perched upon a rock by the teleosaurs (see later), which were notable for their billowing sail-like wings. They were based upon an uncertain species referred to back then as Pterodactylus [later Rhamphocephalus] bucklandi, but they were known colloquially as the Oolite pterosaurs because the fossils upon which they were based had been found in British Oolite rocks, dating from the Jurassic. Tragically, however, as I'll be revealing tomorrow in Part 3, Fate – or, to be more precise, the general public – was less than kind to them.

A vintage picture postcard from 1911 depicting Crystal Palace Park's Dinosaur Court, including the two small, subsequently-destroyed Oolite pterosaurs, arrowed (public domain)

The Oolite pterosaurs in close-up (public domain)

Reposing on Secondary Island's shore and also residing in its offshore waters, as well in as those of Primary Island, are a sundry array of aquatic Mesozoic reptiles. These consist of three plesiosaurs, three ichthyosaurs, and two marine crocodilians, based upon remains originating from such famous English fossiliferous locations as Lyme Regis and Whitby.

There is also a semi-submerged mosasaur, sited apart from the others in a dam setting at the edge of Secondary Island nearest to Tertiary Island, and based upon Dutch fossils.

Overview of the Crystal Palace dinosaurs and lake reptiles (© Nick Richards/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)

The three plesiosaurs were reconstructed by Hawkins according to the popular Victorian misapprehension that these water monsters' elongate necks were inordinately flexible, virtually able to tie themselves in knots, in stark contrast to modern-day views that they were in fact relatively inflexible, stretching forward in a fairly stiff horizontal manner. Their bodies are also more slender and supple than is nowadays believed for such reptiles.

Each plesiosaur statue represents a different species. Namely, Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus, "P." [=Rhomaleosaurus?] macrocephalus, and Thalassiodracon hawkinsi. However, there is some modern-day disagreement as to which statue represents which species.


Hawkins's three Crystal Palace plesiosaur statues (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Hawkins's trio of ichthyosaurs (again each one representing a different species) look distinctly odd too, due in no small way to their conspicuous lack of both a dorsal fin and the very large vertical shark-like tail fin that all but the earliest of these marine reptiles are now known to have possessed. Instead, Hawkins simply gave them long flat tails emerging directly from their backbone (plus a small flat terminal protuberance for the biggest ichthyosaur's tail), and he positioned these creatures resting partly out of the water on the island's shore, more like seals than sea reptiles.

In addition, their large eyes are encircled with exposed bony sclerotic plates, which are indeed present in fossil ichthyosaur remains but were much more likely to have been hidden beneath skin in the living animals (as they are in various modern-day creatures that possess them). The three species represented are Temnodontosaurus platydon (the largest member of this trio), Ichthyosaurus communis (the mid-sized one), and Leptonectes tenuirostris (the smallest).

Two of Hawkins's three Crystal Palace ichthyosaur statues – Temnodontosaurus platydon in foreground, with the head of Leptonectes tenuirostris visible in background (© Dr Karl Shuker)


Two of Hawkins's three Crystal Palace ichthyosaur statues – Leptonectes tenuirostris at back, Ichthyosaurus communis in front (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Two marine crocodilians, Teleosaurus, are also present, sporting very long, slender gharial-like jaws, elongate bodies, long tails, and clawed shortish limbs, which is how this prehistoric oceanic reptile is still restored today. Unfortunately, their scales are visibly based upon those of modern-day crocodiles rather than fossil teleosaurs.

Teleosaurs belong to the now-extinct suborder of crocodilians known as thalattosuchians. Some of its members included fully aquatic species whose limbs had evolved into paddle-shaped flippers, unlike the clawed limbs of teleosaurs.

Hawkins's two Crystal Palace Teleosaurus statues (© Dr Karl Shuker)

As for the mosasaur: at the time of Hawkins's statue, only the appearance of these varanid-related aquatic lizards' head was known. So, supplemented merely by a generic scaly upper back portion and a single forelimb, this is all that Hawkins created, skilfully positioning this very incomplete statue so as to create the illusion that its largely non-existent body was actually present but submerged beneath the water surface!

Having said that, Hawkins was more than happy to improvise then-undescribed body portions for various other creatures here, including the dinosaur Hylaeosaurus and the therapsid Dicynodon (see later). Hence it seems odd that he didn't do the same for this mosasaur. Its species is Mosasaurus hoffmanni.

Hawkins's Crystal Palace Mosasaurus statue (© Andrew Wilkinson/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)

Modern-day reconstruction of Mosasaurus (Dimitry Bogdanov/Wikipedia public domain)

Continuing along Dinosaur Court's mainland footpath that leads past each of the islands and takes the visitor ever further back in geological time, the Mesozoic's giant reptilian mega-stars of land, air, and water that are present on and around Secondary Island are now left behind, and five statues of smaller, less familiar archaic herpetological creatures are encountered on Primary Island, near the water edge.

Three of these are prehistoric amphibians, specifically temnospondyls – a diverse, long-extinct taxonomic group that includes various amphibians formerly categorized as either labyrinthodonts or stegocephalians. Moreover, unlike any amphibians alive today, some temnospondyls were scaly-skinned, like reptiles; others, conversely, were smooth-skinned, like modern-day amphibians.

19th-Century drawing of Hawkins's Crystal Palace statue of Mastodonsaurus jaegeri, aka Labyrinthodon salamandroides, a temnospondyl (public domain)


Modern-day reconstruction of Mastodonsaurus (public domain)

The largest temnospondyl species could attain lengths of up to 20 ft, i.e. far bigger than any modern-day amphibian. Moreover, we know today from abundant fossil evidence that they were long-jawed, long-tailed, lengthy-bodied beasts, superficially resembling crocodiles, with smaller ones resembling salamanders.

Back in the days of Owen and Hawkins, conversely, with far fewer uncovered fossils available for study, it was wrongly assumed that they simply looked like very large frogs. Hence this is how Hawkins reconstructed the bodies of the two temnospondyl species on display here in Dinosaur Court, adding only short stumpy tails, although he did provide their heads with longer jaws than those of frogs.

Hawkins's Crystal Palace statue of Mastodonsaurus jaegeri, aka Labyrinthodon salamandroides (© Dr Karl Shuker)

One of these species, represented by a single large statue, was known back then as Labyrinthodon salamandroides, but was subsequently renamed during various reclassifications, and is currently referred to as Mastodonsaurus jaegeri. Hawkins reconstructed it with smooth skin. It lived in what is today Europe, including the UK, during the early Mesozoic's mid-Triassic Period, 247-237 million years ago, and is nowadays believed to have been predominantly aquatic, rarely leaving the water, whereas Hawkins positioned his statue of it on land. The biggest specimens were up to 20 ft long.

The other species, represented by a couple of smaller statues, was known in Hawkins's time as Labyrinthodon pachygnathus, but today is called Cyclotosaurus pachygnathus. This was a temnospondyl with scaly skin, which Hawkins duly incorporated into his reconstruction, but otherwise his statue of it looks very similar to his Mastodonsaurus specimens, i.e. frog-like but with fairly long jaws. It existed from the mid to late Triassic Period, which ended around 200 million years ago, grew up to 14 ft long, and lived in Europe, especially in what is now Germany.

Hawkins's two Crystal Palace statues of Cyclotosaurus pachygnathus aka Labyrinthodon pachygnathus (© Dr Karl Shuker)

The final two statues displayed on Dinosaur Park's Primary Island, one somewhat larger than the other, represent a strange creature known as Dicynodon, which existed in what is now South Africa, and dates further back in time than any other animal form represented here. Flourishing during the upper Permian Period of the late Palaeozoic Era, approximately 252 million years ago (certain Triassic species have also been described but these are all nowadays reclassified in other genera), Dicynodon was a therapsid, That is, it belonged to a reptilian group commonly dubbed the mammal-like reptiles, because this was the group that did indeed give rise to the mammals, evolving certain anatomical features that would characterize the mammals once the therapsids themselves died out.

Unfortunately, however, back in Hawkins's day, this reptile was principally known only from skulls, which were characterized by a pair of sizeable upper tusks and a horny tortoise-like beak. Consequently, adhering to Owen's conjecture that its body may have borne a shell, Hawkins accordingly reconstructed Dicynodon as a veritable sabre-toothed tortoise, and sporting not only a domed chelonian carapace but also a scute-bearing tail reminiscent of the American snapping turtle's. This is of course all dramatically different from the shell-less, barrel-bodied, mammalian predecessor that we now know this reptile to have been. Herbivorous by nature, Dicynodon is believed to have used its two large upper tusks (which were its only teeth) for digging up roots and tubers, whereas its beak was probably used for cropping vegetation.

Hawkins's two Crystal Palace Dicynodon statues (© Ben Sutherland/Wikipedia – CC BY 2.0 licence)


Rear view of Hawkins's two Crystal Palace Dicynodon statues, showing their tail scutes (© Loz Pycock/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)


Modern-day reconstruction of Dicynodon (Nobu Tamura/Wikipedia – CC BY 2.5 licence)

Continuing along the mainland footpath leads round to the opposite side of the islands, which afforded a clearer view of the pterosaurs and the giant ground sloth when I visited in 2010, before finally ending full circle back at the entrance.

Unexpectedly, just before the entrance is reached, a statue of London Zoo's famous former resident Guy the Gorilla is encountered – offering some great opportunities for selfies!

The statue of London Zoo's Guy the Gorilla in Crystal Palace Park (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Having now completed our virtual tour of Crystal Palace's Dinosaur Court, tomorrow, in Part 3 of this ShukerNature blog article (click here to access it), its spectacular exhibits' continual battle against the ravages of time, not to mention wanton vandalism, will be revealed.

We shall also look further afield, to discover what would have – should have – been Hawkins's supreme, transatlantic triumph. But as will be seen, Fate – and inhuman humanity – had other ideas. Don't miss it! And be sure to click here to read Part 1, posted on ShukerNature by me yesterday.

One of Hawkins's Crystal Palace Teleosaurus statues alongside a very much alive grey heron! (© Chris Sampson/Wikipedia – CC BY 2.0 licence)