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Megalosaurus

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Scientific name: Megalosaurus, meaning ‘Giant lizard’.

The model is specifically meant to represent Megalosaurus bucklandi.

Common name: Megalosaur

Lived: England

When: 168.3 – 166.1 million years ago

Size: 6 metres long and weighing 1000 kg

Diet: Meat

Statues: A single individual facing towards the iguanodons

Fun fact: Charles Dickens imagined meeting a Megalosaurus on the muddy streets of London in the opening lines of Bleak House. It is also mentioned in Conan Doyle’s Lost World.

The Crystal Palace statues vs modern scientific reconstructions: Megalosaurus has the honour of being the first dinosaur to be described in a scientific way (by William Buckland in 1824), although the term ‘dinosaur’ was not coined by the anatomist Richard Owen for another 18 years. Its ‘fearful’ teeth were compared to a collection of knives, swords and saws.

At the time of the model’s construction the available fossil material was a jaw bone and teeth, a few vertebrae, pelvic bones and some hindlimb material. Today M. bucklandi is regarded as the only species of Megalosaurus and, though still incompletely known, is understood as a stocky, 6-7 m long predatory species. This is ultimately mid-sized for a theropod dinosaur, but large for a Middle Jurassic species.

Many of the key features remain in modern reconstructions from the Crystal Palace model, including its large stature, long tail and general head shape. In the image below, gone is the large shoulder hump and of course it is now depicted as bipedal (standing on two legs) rather than a quadruped (standing on four legs) with short forelimbs with a robust, three-fingered hand. Interestingly, its exact proportions remain unknown.

The sculptor, Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, did a good job of distinguishing Megalosaurus from the other plant-eating dinosaurs in terms of its anatomy and it bears several hallmarks of predatory species that reflect close observation of living animals. The limbs, for instance, are not held as pillars as in the Iguanodon, but are have flexed knees, elbows, wrists and ankles, as well as bulging musculature. This pose suggests a motion and energy lacking in the pillar-like limbs of the Iguanodon, and recalls the limbs of rhinos - relatively fast, sprightly giants - more than the columnar-limbs of slower paced elephants.

The body is trim and streamlined, tapering from the muscular shoulders towards the hips. The massive head is held in place with powerful neck muscles anchoring to an enlarged shoulder skeleton. The result is a creature that looks undeniably powerful and predatory, a mix of bear, buffalo and crocodile, and it’s difficult not to imagine the model as eyeing the adjacent Iguanodon as a potential meal.

Although the Megalosaurus is restored with mouth slightly ajar, it’s clear from both the model and associated Hawkins’ artwork that the teeth are set as in crocodylians - in other words, they would be visible even when the mouth was closed. Today, the subject of dental exposure in dinosaurs and other fossil forms is a hot topic among palaeoartists but we can view Hawkins’ take as being in line with general ideas of dinosaur palaeobiology c. 1850.

The shoulder hump, now absent from modern reconstructions, is probably based on three fossil vertebrae with tall spines that were thought to belong to Megalosaurus but subsequently turned out to be from another Wealden theropod dinosaur called Altispinax dunkeri.

The skin of Megalosaurus, rather than obviously scaly as per the other dinosaurs, has deep fissures and wrinkles that recall elephant skin. The decision to not depict individual scales was surprisingly forward thinking, as the eventual discovery of dinosaur scales would reveal their small nature (typically less than a centimetre across). This may have been a lucky guess on the part of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, an attempt to distinguish Megalosaurus from the other dinosaur models, or perhaps an intuition that dinosaurs might be ‘more than just reptiles’.


© Copyright Mark Witton 2018

This reconstruction has been reproduced by kind permission of the very talented palaeoartist Mark Witton whose work you can read about, support and buy.

Last edited on 19 July 2019

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