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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.