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Is it a Giant Frog? Neglected Labyrinthodon in Crystal Palace Park

27 August 2014

By Simon Jackson @drsimonjackson (2014).

When most people go to Crystal Palace Park, they expect to see the iconic dinosaur statues, such as Megalosaurus and Iguanodon. However, there are many other extinct (non-dinosaurian) animals in the Park. All have interesting stories to tell. It is unfortunate that so many of them are overlooked.

Several of these can be seen in a sketch below by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, the famous creator of the Crystal Palace Park statues. In my previous article, Have We Found “Missing” Footprint? I wrote about the series of footprints, seen in the centre of this illustration, which - supposedly - was replicated as an exhibit in the Park [1]. In this article, I will focus more on its trackmaker — the animal seen in the centre, the Labyrinthodon.

Watercolour painting of Triassic animals by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins,  undated (c.1853) (Photograph by Simon Jackson 2014 reproduced with permission of Natural History Museum Picture Library http://piclib.nhm.ac.ukindex.asp)

From the sketch, this creature presents a strange combination of characters. What was Hawkins really trying to illustrate here? The back-half of the animal looks very frog-like, particularly the way the relatively long limbs are folded next to the body. The head looks nothing like a frog, and it’s hard to interpret what exactly Hawkins was illustrating.

So, where did Hawkins get this strange Labyrinthodon reconstruction from?

Hawkins created the extinct models under the “sanction and approval” and guiding scientific hand of the famous British anatomist, Sir Richard Owen, the “British Cuvier” [2]. Owen coined the name Dinosauria in 1842 [3]. He also was an expert in early amphibians and reptiles, describing the first Triassic amphibians and reptiles from England [4].

Of greatest importance here, Owen described [3,5] several species of Labyrinthodon from fragmentary material that he was sent from Warwickshire (particularly the Coten End Quarry — a quarry worked in the 19th century for building stones).  Owen lumped together the material he was sent; combining several very different animals with the correctly identified ‘amphibian’ (temnospondyl) skull. Thus, a chimera was born.

Most importantly, Labyrinthodon pachygnathus included a hip element (ilium), now attributed to a quite distantly related animal (the holotype specimen for the archosaur, Bromsgroveia walkeri [4]; an animal more closely related to the crocodile). Owen concluded [3,5] the Labyrinthodon had a disproportionately large set of hindlimbs, agreeing in form with “some of the living anourous Batrachians” — meaning, frogs and toads.

Owen’s restored outline of the Labyrinthodon, reproduced in Sir Charles Lyell’s A Manual of Elementary Geology

Owen’s ‘creature’ can be seen in his restored outline (above) reproduced by Lyell [6]. Here, it is seen making the Chirotherium trackway, it was, then, believed to have made; as the set of footprints also indicated relatively large hindlimbs. The head is also very crocodile-like, and reflects the many crocodilian features which Owen believed the animal possessed.

Now, from a historical point of view, this is where things become more interesting. Clearly, Owen’s drawing differs to that of the Hawkins’ sketch, with which we began.  Before reading on, have a look yourself and see what you think the differences are.

Photograph of one of the two Labyrinthodon pachygnathus models at Crystal Palace Park with the larger model of Labyrinthodon salamandroides behind (photograph by Simon Jackson 2014).

Spot the difference? In Hawkins’ illustration and one of actual statues of the Labyrinthodon (L. pachygnathus), seen in the photograph above, the back is clearly arched, reminiscent of a frog — much more flattened than in Owen’s drawing. Why is this?

Hawkins could be most likely trying to represent an extinct animal, by reproducing the image of a known living animal, to which the public would be familiar. Thus, the Labyrinthodon of Owen became transformed to the more frog-like creature of Hawkins. The arched back may have also been based upon the interpretation of the backbone (dorsal vertebrae) that Owen described3 from Labyrinthodon scutulatus; “[the vertebrae] indicating an habitual inflection of the spine, analogous to that in the humped back of the frog” (we do know that Hawkins was scholarly and would have consulted in detail the work of Owen2).

Hawkins seems to have deviated from the amphibian bodyplan with the somewhat unusual block-like head, in the statue, lined with short teeth.  If not frog, then what animal does this unusual head resemble?  The Hawkins’ sketch of the Labyrinthodon, that we began with, has an even more unusual head.  We would be interested to hear your thoughts of what you think it looks like.  But, clearly it deviates from the crocodile-like head in the sketch that Owen reproduced.

Hawkins’ miniature scaled model of the Labyrinthodon, which he supposedly presented to Owen, to seek scientific approval before creating larger scaled up statues (plaster cast of original shown at Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution)(Courtesy of Bath Royal literary and Scientific Institution http://www.brlsi.org/collections)

Interestingly, the smaller scaled model of the Labyrinthodon (above), which Hawkins supposedly presented to Owen, to seek his scientific approval, closely resembles the finished statue product.  Does this mean Owen actually approved of it though?  — Consider the significant differences we discussed above between Owen’s sketch (i.e.  crocodile-like head, flat back) and the statue…Or, was his disapproval ignored?  In absence of more data, this is something at which we can only speculate at this stage (we of course would be interested to hear your views on this).

So, to summarise; it is a real shame that people at the Park rush past the Labyrinthodon, so eager to either look at the marine reptiles, dinosaurs or ‘pterodactyles’. Spare a thought for the little ones. The Labyrinthodon has interesting stories to tell, stories that pertain to the complex relationship between the artist (Hawkins) and the scientific consultant (Owen), which we are only just beginning to understand. Owen is often given more credit for the reconstruction of the models, but we think Hawkins’ frog-like reconstruction differs significantly from Owen’s vision.  So, the scientific description and basis for the Labyrinthodon, of course, lay with Owen, but the finished product, the final vision we see at Crystal Palace, was created by the artistic eye of Hawkins.

In addition to the frog, Hawkins may have been influenced by other animals when creating his Labyrinthodon creature.  So have a good look at the models and let us know what other influences you think could be present. Please send your tweets to @cpdinosaurs.

Modern day reconstruction of Labyrinthodon (temnospondyl; Paracyclotosaurus davidi) at Natural History Museum. Only the skull did Owen correctly attribute to the group; Owen incorrectly lumped other skeletal parts from distantly related animals with the skull (Photograph by Simon Jackson 2014)


1. Owen, R, and Hawkins, B. W. (1854).  Geology and Inhabitants of the Ancient World. Crystal Palace Library. 39 p.

2. Hawkins, B. W. (1854). On Visual Education As Applied to Geology. Journal of the Society of Arts,  2: 444-449.

3. Owen, R. (1842). Report on British Fossil Reptiles, Part II. Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science for 1841–1842:60–204.

4. Benton, M. J., & Gower, D. J. (1997). Richard Owen’s Giant Triassic Frogs: Archosaurs from the Middle Triassic of England. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 17(1), 74-88.

5 Owen, R. (1842). Description of Parts of the Skeleton and Teeth of Five Species of the Genus Labyrinthodon (Lab. leptognathus, Lab. pachygnathus and Lab.ventricosus, from the Coten End and Cubbington Quarries of the Lower Warwick Sandstone; Lab. jaegeri from Guy’s Cliff, Warwick: and Lab. scutulatus from Leamington); With Remarks on the Probable Identity of the Cheirotherium with This Genus of Extinct Batrachians. Transactions of the Geological Society of London, series 2, 6:515–543.

6. Lyell, C. (1858) A Manual of Elementary Geology. Reprinted from Six Edition. New York, Appleton & Company.


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