Thursday, May 26, 2016

Guest Post: The Pocket-Sized Crystal Palace Dinosaurs

Today we welcome back guest blogger Rohan Long of the University of Melbourne, who joined us in February for a look back at Crichton's The Lost World novel. This time, he shares some cool relics from paleontology in the Victorian era.

Every reader of this blog must surely be familiar with the Crystal Palace dinosaurs. These were the life-size dinosaur models made around 1854 by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins in collaboration with Richard Owen and placed in a naturalistic, outdoor setting in Crystal Palace Park. They were the very first dinosaur models ever made. The story of these magnificent and ground-breaking models has been told extensively elsewhere, but I’d like to share with you slightly lesser known versions of these famous sculptures.

From their inception, Hawkins and his supporters saw the sculptures as being primarily educational and accessible to everyone – not just the educated elite. Hawkins thought of his dinosaurs as ‘one vast and combined experiment of visual education’. The sculptures were envisioned not as mere spectacle, but as a public educational resource to improve the mind, for all classes of Victorian society. The dean of Hereford, Richard Dawes, a cleric and educator, suggested to Hawkins that small-scale models of the dinosaurs be made for the purpose of scientific studies in schools and other educational institutions. In the spirit of inclusiveness, Dawes said:

‘He should be glad to see those models multiplied at a price which would enable them to be introduced into village and ordinary school, as every one could not visit the Crystal Palace, and he therefore hoped that specimens like those before them might be rendered attainable by those in remote and secluded districts, who would not have the advantage of witnessing the splendid and gigantic illustration of the extinct creation of the early ages of the world which would be there exhibited.1

Knowing a good merchandising deal when he saw it, mineralogist James Tennant struck an agreement with Hawkins to produce the models, along with a series of six posters depicting the prehistoric animals that had been sculpted. Tennant, capitalising on the lucrative market of well-to-do gentlemen naturalists, and had built up a successful business selling fossils, shells, minerals and the tools needed to collect them. (By 1854, Tennant laid claim to the impressive and unique title of ‘Mineralogist to her Majesty’). Small- scale models were produced of the dinosaurs Megalosaurus and Iguanodon, the aquatic reptiles Ichthyosaurus and Plesiosaurus (combined as a tableau), the pterosaur Pterodactylus, and "Labyrinthodon," an obsolete name for the temnospondyl amphibian Mastodonsaurus.

Hawkins' Iguanodon in miniature, held by the Tiegs Zoology Museum. Photo by Lee McRae.
Hawkins' Iguanodon in miniature, held by the Tiegs Zoology Museum. Photo by Lee McRae.

In addition to these models, replicas were made by Henry A. Ward, an American professor of natural science and dealer of in fossils, bones and other scientific specimens. Ward was advertising the models from at least 1866 and sold them from his business, Ward’s Natural Science Establishment, in Rochester, New York. According to Ward’s catalogue of the time, a full set of the five models could be purchased for $30, or individually from $5 to $10.2

We have two of these small-scale models in our Tiegs Museum Zoology Collection at the University of Melbourne, an Iguanodon and a Megalosaurus. They were donated to the collection sometime between 1916 and 1921 by trail-blazing zoologist Associate Professor Georgina Sweet. Due to the university’s historically close association with the British scientific establishment, I suspected our models were Hawkins’ originals rather than Wards replicas. After some detective work I found that although the two model types are very similar in their shape, there are differences in the models’ colouration. Ward’s models are a coppery-brown colour, with a green plaster underside. Our models, and all of Hawkins’ originals, are painted a glossy black, while the exposed plaster underside is a mottled white, grey and green.

Hawkins' Megalosaurus in miniature, held by the Tiegs Zoology Museum. Photo by Lee McRae.
Hawkins' Megalosaurus in miniature, held by the Tiegs Zoology Museum. Photo by Lee McRae.

While I was researching these models, I visited the collections of the Melbourne Museum to see their own Iguanodon (also a Hawkins’ original). A geologist friend of mine was there with the collection manager. He heard about my project and scoffed cheerfully; “Why are you interested in those things? They’re wrong!” This is a common reaction to these dinosaurs and I think it’s short-sighted. If I was writing this in the eighties, I’d be correcting Hawkins’ assumption that Iguanodon was quadrupedal and reconstruct it instead as the awkward, kangaroo-postured biped we all know and love. But paleontological research has brought us full circle and Iguanodon is again considered predominantly quadrupedal, albeit more lightly built than the Victorians had envisioned. Any student of the history of paleontological illustration should be wary of the notion that current reconstructions aren’t every bit a work in progress as their predecessors. Imagine how silly all of these featherless dinosaurs are going to look to the next generation of dinosaur devotees.


1. Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, ‘On visual education as applied to geology’, Journal of the Society of Arts, (London), vol. 2, 1853–54.

2. Henry A. Ward, 1866, quoted in Jane P. Davidson, ‘Catalogue of casts of fossils (1866) and the artistic influence of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins on Ward’, Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science, vol. 108, nos 3–4, Fall 2005, pp. 138–48.

You can catch up with Rohan on Twitter @zoologyrohan and listen to his new musical project, Bronzewing, at

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Dave Hone's The Tyrannosaur Chronicles: at last, a review

A mere several weeks behind everyone else's, here it is - my review of The Tyrannosaur Chronicles, a book dedicated to the lives and times of the tyrannosauroids, as written by Dave Hone (for it is he). As a rare addition to the canon of popular books on dinosaur palaeobiology aimed at an adult audience, it's already quite an exciting prospect for us mere enthusiasts - but can Dr Dave do Sexy Rexy and friends justice? Of course he can.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Animals of the Past Stamps - Part 2

Having had a look at the dinosaurs in Animals of the Past Stamps (1954), I asked our lovely readers if they'd be at all interested in seeing some of the stinkin' Cenozoic mammals. A handful of people were, so here we are. Unfortunately, I don't know half as much about prehistoric mammals as I do dinosaurs (in spite of being a descendant of some of them), so you'll have to forgive me when I fail to spot the bleedin' obvious. I mean, more so than usual. In any case, let's start at the Palaeogene beginning!

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Win The Tyrannosaur Chronicles!

Following Niroot's previous post, we have at least 2 SIX copies of Dave Hone's new book, The Tyrannosaur Chronicles, to give away. The book is a superb examination (a chronicle, if you will) of the science surrounding that very sexiest of theropod clades, the tyrannosauroids. Highly accessible and yet detailed and comprehensive with it, The Tyrannosaur Chronicles has plenty to offer for dinosaur enthusiasts of every stripe. It's been met with a flurry of positive reviews, to which we will hopefully add some of our own in the not too distant future. But for now...

...We'd like you to draw something for us. Specifically, we'd like to see T. rex trying (at some anachronistic human activity). And succeeding. Because atrophied forelimbs never really held anyone back, damn it, and as Dave's book will make clear, tyrannosaurs were very successful and intriguing animals. Our favourites, based on some magic combination of originality and humour, will win copies of the book. We'll also be sure to corner Dave down a dark alley and force him to sign them, which is no mean feat, as he's probably as strong as Niroot and I put together.

Please upload your entries somewhere and link to them in a comment on this post. The deadline is June 6. Absolute anatomical accuracy is not essential, but points will be awarded for it. By way of inspiration, here's a wee drawing by Niroot depicting Tyrannosaurus, the artist, being inspired itself by a Troodon. There might be some movie reference in there (what day is it again?). Good luck y'all.

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Tyrannosaur Chronicles book launch

Friday the 22nd April saw the official launch of Dr. David Hone’s first book, The Tyrannosaur Chronicles (Bloomsbury Sigma), at Queen Mary University London, in the rather lovely book-lined Octagon of Queen’s Building -- which, if the British Museum’s Enlightenment Gallery should fail to become my library, would serve pretty well in its stead. Dr. Dave has written about the book’s publication on his blog, and it has already gained a deservedly positive reception, not least among which is Tom Holland’s glowing review on New Statesman. And we at Love in the time of Chasmosaurs are very much hoping to post one or two of our own in due course.

After an introduction by Dr. Steve Le Comber, Dr. Dave read two short extracts from the book. The first, on a method of prey despatch, was especially illuminating and memorable for me simply because the conjecture never once occurred to me, but which once posited made such elegant sense: 

‘The huge caudofemoralis muscles ran from the femur and up most of the first third of the tail in all dinosaurs. The tail gave a huge amount of power to the legs for running, was full of major blood vessels and was not surrounded by bone. A heavy bite anywhere around the thigh or first part of the tail might well have crippled an animal, leaving it unable to run and bleeding badly. Also, the tail was one of the first things a pursuing hunter would encounter in a fleeing animal, so using this technique would have reduced the chase distance, which would have been important especially if the prey animal was fundamentally faster than the tyrannosaur. Notably, there are two fossil hadrosaurs showing injury to the tails from tyrannosaur bites, and another with a wound to the leg; it’s a very limited data set, but it does nonetheless point to this as a strategy.’

 After the readings, the audience was treated to a live link-up via Skype with the book’s illustrator, Scott Hartman, whose trusted, accurate skeletals I’m sure require no introduction here. Dr. Dave prefaced this by pointing out the precision of Scott’s working methods, and recounting how, during the course of writing the book, when Dave was asked whether he had a second choice in mind in the event that Scott couldn’t be procured, his answer was a quite decisive ‘well, no.’

The last of the formalities was the purchasing and signing of copies of the book (all which were brought to the launch sold out), whilst guests also had time to ogle at, photograph, and even handle the various casts that were on display.

Dave points out that the manus here belongs to Albertosaurus rather than T. rex

It was a great pity that Marc couldn’t make it this time, or without question there would have been some choice goofy pictures with the fantastic skull, and you would have had a superior post than this besides (in more ways than one). Never mind. I did at any rate get a picture of another star who also happened to be there.

Luis Rey!
The evening itself was rounded off with the hosts and guests all trooping off to a nearby pub for a celebratory drink. Marc was more than especially missed at this point. On that note, he and I have been chatting over a little competition which we’re hoping to launch very shortly, with copies of this very book as prizes, hurrah! Watch this space, as they say.


Saturday, April 23, 2016

Horniman bonus dinosaurs

As an addendum to my previous post, it's worth mentioning that there's some dinosaur material on permanent display at the Horniman...just not very much. Perhaps the most noteworthy dinosaur display consists of a series of very dated scale models. They're most definitely of the pre-Renaissance, cold-blooded old school, but very charming with it. Here's a selection.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Monster Families at the Horniman

While everyone knows the few 'big name' museums in London (the NHM among them), the city also boasts a surprisingly large number of more low-key institutions, some of which are well worth seeking out for the nuttier natural history enthusiast. One of these would be the Horniman Museum, located a stone's throw from Forest Hill station in south-east London. Currently the Horniman is home to the travelling exhibition 'Dinosaurs: Monster Families', which is naturally what drew Niroot and I in (for the second and first visit, respectively). Here's the skinny, y'all.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Therapsids and You

Testing… Testing…
As this is my first post on LITC I’d like to say “Hello!” I live in South Africa, in the south- western windy end that’s known as the Cape of Good Hope (You know, the place the survivors travel to at the end of the 2012 movie…)
Anyway, I’ve pretty much always been a fossil nerd. As kids my twin sister and I would set up our own excavations. We’d dig up things we thought were dinosaur fossils with tools we found in our parents garage. Nowadays my love of paleontology is not restricted to dinosaurs. In South Africa we have a diverse range of geological formations that have preserved many different creatures from all across the expanse of time. One such group of creatures is a group that is very close to my heart, a group of animals that is not very well known: Therapsids.  
What are Therapsids?
Therapsids evolved in the middle Permian, around 260 million years ago. Therapsid fossils are not unique to South Africa. There are rich finds of these animals in Russia, though South Africa is where these Therapsids were first discovered. The Therapsids belong to a larger group of animals called the Synapsids (of which mammals are the only living examples) and a particularly well known Synapsid from North America  is Dimetrodon.
But Dimetrodon is a dinosaur right? Nope, wrong. But then why have I been finding Dimetrodon figurines alongside T.rex since childhood? Because Therapsids are so poorly understood. Also, let’s admit they do look pretty wild with that giant, colorful fan stuck to their backs. But Dimetrodon is not a dinosaur. So what was it, a reptile? Let’s return to the definition of a Synapsid.

Original artwork: Charles R Knight

Everybody Let’s Not Walk the Dinosaur
Synapsid is an umbrella term referring to a lineage of animals both living and extinct that evolved from Amniotes, early tetrapods that were terrestrial and bred on land. Reptiles and Synapsids both have this common ancestor; however, they were two different lines of descent and this cannot be stressed enough. Lizards, snakes, crocodiles, dinosaurs and the avian dinosaurs, birds, are all groups of animals we’re familiar with tracing their ancestry back to Reptiles.
But what are Synapsids? While early ones like Dimetrodon superficially resembled reptiles and dinosaurs, they were not reptiles. These animals were the ancient relatives and ancestors of mammals, including Humans.  In South Africa, a group of Synapsids named the Therapsids reigned as the dominant fauna for over 40 Million years, and included a bizarre group of animals that could have come straight out of a science-fiction novel. Gorgonospians and Therocephalians had long sabre-like canines, similar to the sabre-toothed cats that evolved much later and prowled the primeval flood plains of the Great Karoo, at a time when South America, Africa, India, Antarctica, and Australia were joined forming a single giant southern continent called Gondwana. Dog to cow-sized dicynodonts were tusk-bearing herbivores, who fed using a tortoise like beak. They were also the main prey of the gorgonopsians and therocephalians. Smaller meerkat-sized animals called Cynodonts included the ancestors of mammals and may even have had whiskers.
However, life on Earth never came closer to complete annihilation than it did at the end of the Permian period 252 million years ago, when 90% of all life (including the therapsids) was eradicated due to a run-away greenhouse warming event at that time. Fossil remains of these animals are found in the Karoo Basin today, and tell their story to Palaeontologists. A few of the small, burrowing therapsids species managed to survive and their descendants, the mammals, eked out a living through the Mesozoic (perhaps dodging the gargantuan steps of sauropods and T. rex!) The amazing part of this story is that the only group of Synapsids alive today are mammals, and us. Perhaps if our minute burrowing ancestors were not so resourceful we would not be here.
Therapsids and other synapsids are amazing evidence for the wonder of evolution. The fact that we humans can trace our ancestry back to these animals… I can’t get over how amazing that is. It’s something we should all know about.  In South Africa the fossil preservation is of such high resolution that the transition from therapsid to mammal can be tracked through time using these animals. Also we can now safely say that there are no reptile- people after all because humans did not evolve from reptiles…

Source: Flickr

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Animals of the Past Stamps

Now here's another properly old one (at long last) - a compendium of extinct animal 'stamps' from the Cold War world of 1954. Why put 'stamps' in fright quotes? Well, they're more like stickers, given that you wouldn't be able to send an angry letter to the palaeontological establishment of the day with any of them. This would, therefore, be a sticker album. But 'tis mere semantics - we're here to see a variety of prehistoric creatures presented in sub-technicolour retro stylee, and The Golden Play Book of Animals of the Past Stamps doesn't disappoint.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Baron, Scientist, Swashbuckler, Spy: The Colorful Life and Tragic Death of Franz Nopcsa

Hey, all! As a full time freelancer, I don't have much time to write for you anymore, but since my attempts to get this piece published have fallen through (twice) I thought I'd go ahead and find a home for it here. Enjoy!

First among his roles, he was an adventurer. He was a dashing Transylvanian baron, a openly queer man who studied the life habits of dinosaurs in ways that nobody before him had. He schemed for the crown of Albania, worked as a spy for the empire of Austria-Hungary, and left behind a wealth of scientific ideas and theories decades ahead of his time. And then, abruptly, he was forgotten. Few outside of the study of paleontology now remember his name.

The history of science is filled with strange lives and buried stories. But few lives were stranger than that of Franz Nopcsa von Felső-Szilvás: the flamboyant lord of dinosaurs, and (appropriately for a man who bore a startling resemblance to Freddy Mercury) perhaps the most interesting man ever to turn his attention to rock.