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Sabre-Toothed Turtles, Impossible! The Most Challenging Palaeontological ‘Jigsaw’ at Crystal Palace Park

20 September 2014

By Dr Simon Jackson

In my previous article, I wrote about the reconstruction of the Labyrinthodon, at Crystal Palace Park.  But the Dicynodon, seen to the left of this Hawkins’ illustration, was to prove an even greater challenge — perhaps the hardest of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs.

Watercolour painting of Triassic animals by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins undated (c.1853). Dicynodonts are on the far left. (Reproduced with permission of Natural History Museum Picture Library ©The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London http://piclib.nhm.ac.ukindex.asp)

When you see dinosaurs in productions such as Jurassic Park or Walking with Dinosaurs, or the animal statues at Crystal Palace Park, it’s easy to forget that what you see is the end-product of a process — a process built piece by piece by scientists and artists.

All palaeontologists struggle with the same problem — reconstructing an animal from a few bones or parts. It’s like putting together a jigsaw — but from only a few pieces! And to make it harder, there’s no picture on a box to follow.

The famous British anatomist, Richard Owen was particularly good at these types of puzzles.  Perhaps his most famous example was in 1839, when he was able to predict the existence of a huge unknown flightless bird in New Zealand — from a fragment of a femur alone [1].

Although his supposition was not initially accepted by all of the scientific community, he was proved right three years later, when he was able to reconstruct the Dinornis (more commonly known as the “moa”) from more complete material [2]. Thus Owen’s reputation was vindicated (and even fabled) and the photograph of him standing next to the complete moa skeleton, is his triumphant “I told you so” moment. It appeared, he “could wield the same predictive powers as mathematicians or astronomers” [3].

Professor Owen and his reconstructed Dinornis (“moa”) (taken 1877) ((Reproduced with permission of Natural History Museum Picture Library ©The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London http://piclib.nhm.ac.uk/searchresults.asp?image=004993)

Owen’s reputation also reached South Africa. In 1844, whilst constructing military roads in the Cape of Good Hope,  Mr Andrew Geddes Bain, road engineer, and geologist, had discovered some highly unusual skulls [4]. Curious to find out exactly what these really were, he transmitted the material to the Geological Society of London, with a request that Owen would undertake their description [5].

Of course, Owen eagerly accepted the challenge. This was another opportunity for him to apply his puzzle solving skills — another chance to describe a new type of animal. However, he could not have anticipated the strange animal he was about to uncover….

The strangest character which struck Owen was the sharp-pointed tusks projecting from the skulls  (an obvious feature which formed the basis of Bain’s initial name for them;  “Bidentals”). These tusks, he compared to those of the walrus; “borrowed as it were from the Mammalian class” [5]. As the hard sandstone was painstakingly removed under Owen’s keen supervision, other strange features of the skull also became more apparent.

The front of the upper and lower jaws, Owen deduced, were sheathed with horn, forming a bill, like that of a turtle. But turtles do not have tusks, Owen noted, making the Dicynodon a very strange animal indeed — a chimera which may have reminded him of the platypus creature, from Australia. (The only other clues that Owen had, were a few vertebrae, from which Owen concluded that the Dicynodon had an aquatic, perhaps marine, lifestyle).

Illustration of Dicynodon lacerticeps skull in Owen’s 1845 Report on the Reptilian Fossils of South Africa

Now, in the case of the moa, Owen was able to able to reconstruct the animal from just one fragment — using the technique of functional correlation to determine that a particular kind of (bird) upper leg bone, was associated with a particular kind of lower leg bone, and so on, until the entire animal was built.  This principle worked well when a complete skeleton of a closely related animal (ostrich) was known, which provided Owen with a framework (or if you like, the picture on the front of the jigsaw puzzle box).  However, when the remains of a completely new creature — such as the Dicynodon — were found, this picture simply did not exist.  The same kind of reference was not there.

Presented with such a strange mix of features, Owen seems to have been unwilling to state his reputation on what the actual creature looked like (judging from the absence of any scientific whole-animal illustrations of his, like the Labyrinthodon, see below). The palaeontologist in him was simply waiting for more fossils — more evidence to guide him through putting the jigsaw together.  But in this case, there simply wasn’t time…

A statue of the Dicynodon was to be erected at the famous Crystal Palace Park, less than 10 years later (1854), by the artistic hand of famous sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins — and the reconstruction was needed now!

Hawkins worked closely with Owen in creating many of the statues — making smaller macquettes (models) of some animals to seek Owen’s scientific approval, before scaling them up to create the finished statues [6]. However, as far as we know (and we would like to be proved wrong) there was no such miniature model of the Dicynodon.  This raises the question —what kind of conversation, if any, was taking place between sculptor and scientific consultant on this particular project? Was Hawkins on his own with the Dicynodon reconstruction?

We know from studying Hawkins’ illustrations, held in the Natural History Museum Picture Library Archives, that Hawkins illustrated the Dicynodon with the head emerging above the horizon [7]. So clearly, Hawkins did not know how to illustrate the rest of the body.

Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins sketch (extract) “Restorations of Animals That Lived during the Secondary or Reptilian Period of the Earth’s History”; Dicynodon shown right hand side (Reproduced with permission of Natural History Museum Picture Library ©The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London http://piclib.nhm.ac.ukindex.asp)

But in order to breathe life into this extinct animal, and to fit the missing pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, Hawkins would have to edge further into the dark of the “speculation zone”, even if Owen was not prepared to.

Now, Hawkins too was a scientist — or, at least, was a student of the scientific work of Owen and the famed anatomist, Baron Georges Cuvier [6]. Could he also apply the same logical principles which served Owen so well in reconstructing the moa?  If the head of the Dicynodon animal, was like that of a turtle, with a beak, then should not the body also be like that of a turtle — with a shell?  And, that is exactly what we see in the statues.

The two Dicynodon statues at Crystal Palace Park (photograph by Professor Joe Cain 2007)

It is also highly probable that Owen’s interpretation of the Dicynodon as an amphibious animal, based upon the nature of the vertebrae, also influenced this reconstruction of Hawkins.  But why did Hawkins not choose to base his Dicynodon body-reconstruction on the walrus?  — given that the significant tusks, were a more prominent feature of Owen’s descriptions [5]. I think, this is to do with Hawkins’ chronological sequence of animals in the Park. Cuvier’s large extinct mammals, such as the mammoth and mastodon had been retrieved from much younger (Tertiary) deposits (than the Dicynodon) and Hawkins had planned to show representative of mammals in a separate part of the Park (The Tertiary Island). So, the suggestion that a walrus-like animal lived in much more ancient times (as was represented by Dicynodon and other animals on The Secondary Island) would have been met by ridicule. So turtle may have won out, simply because it “fit” into this accepted chronological framework.

So, what did Owen think, then, of this strange sabre-toothed turtle?  We can really only speculate, but if his comment in the 1854 Geology and Inhabitants of the Ancient World [8] guide he — supposedly — wrote is anything to go by “Mr Hawkins [has]  taken upon himself the responsibility of adding the trunk to the known characters of the head”, it seems Owen very much left Hawkins to the reconstruction of the Dicynodon body, and then wanted to distance himself from it.

As we briefly touched on in the previous article on the Labyrinthodon, Owen is often credited more for the creation of the Crystal Palace Park statues. But at least in these two instances, we see that these jigsaw puzzles have been put together not just by scientist, but also by artist.  In fact, this is the way that palaeontological jigsaws today are often put together. The palaeontologists place the pieces which make up the bones, muscles (and in some rare cases, skin or body covering). The final pieces for creating the living, ‘fleshed-out’  jigsaw (e.g.  colour), will be put in place by the artist (guided by scientific facts). Although, for the Dicynodon, Hawkins seems to have placed a large part of the jigsaw (i.e. the shell) himself.

Although it is tempting to perhaps judge Hawkins rather harshly with “you got it wrong”, we must remember the very little material that he was working with. There is nothing like the Dicynodon, with its strange mix of features, alive today (we now think these animals are more closely related to mammals than turtles). Most importantly, the Hawkins’ reconstruction, still standing 160 years later, is a ‘living’ testament to the changing process of science — reconstructions change with new discoveries and theories, so we can go back and question older reconstructions, or ideas critically. We can say “we have got it less wrong now”. Ideas, like animals, evolve too.

The sabre-toothed Dicynodon, a turtle no more.

Modern reconstruction of the Dicynodon by Julius Csotonyi in his stunning mural “Permian Monsters, Life before the Dinosaurs”. Picture reproduced here courtesy of artist. © Julius T. Csotonyi http://csotonyi.com/


1. Owen, R. (1840). On the bone of an Unknown Struthious Bird from New Zealand, Meeting of November 12, 1839. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London (Vol. 7, pp. 169-171).

2. Owen, R. (1843).  On the Remains of Dinornis, an Extinct Gigantic Struthious Bird.  Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London (pp. 8-10).

3. Dawson, G.  On Richard Owen’s Discovery, in 1839, of the Extinct New Zealand Moa from Just a Single Bone. BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Last accessed 20 September 2014].

4. Bain, A. G. (1845). II.—On the Discovery of the Fossil Remains of Bidental and other Reptiles in South Africa. Transactions of the Geological Society of London, 53-59.

5. Owen, R. (1845). III.— Report on the Reptilian Fossils of South Africa: Part I.  — Description of Certain Fossil Crania, Discovered by AG Bain, Esq ., in Sandstone Rocks at the South-Eastern Extremity of Africa, Referable to Different Species of an Extinct Genus of Reptilia (Dicynodon), and Indicative of a New Tribe or Sub-order of Sauria. Transactions of the Geological Society of London, 59-84.

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

7. Doyle, P., & Robinson, E. (1993). The Victorian ‘Geological Illustrations’ of Crystal Palace Park. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association, 104(3), 181-194.

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

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