Crystal Palace Field Trip Part 2: Walking With Victorian Dinosaurs

[Previously: the Permian and Triassic]

The next part of the Crystal Palace Dinosaur trail depicts the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. Most of the featured animals here are actually marine reptiles, but a few dinosaur species do make an appearance towards the end of this section.

A photograph of a Crystal Palace ichthyosaur statue, posed hauled out of the water like a seal or crocodile. It's partially obscured by plant growth, and is in a state of slight disrepair – moss and lichen patches cover its sides, and a plant is growing out of a crack on its back. A moorhen can be seen in the water swimming towards it.

Although there are supposed to be three Jurassic ichthyosaur statues here, only the big Temnodontosaurus platyodon could really be seen at the time of my visit. The two smaller Ichthyosaurus communis and Leptonectes tenuirostris were almost entirely hidden by the dense plant growth on the island.

Two photographs of the Crystal Palace ichthyosaurs. On the left the island is clear of foliage and all three can be seen; and on the right is the current overgrown state.
Ichthyosaurs when fully visible vs currently obscured
Left side image by Nick Richards (CC BY SA 2.0)
Two photographs of the large Crystal Palace ichthyosaur, showing closer views of the eye, flipper, and tail fin. Int he background a second ichthyosaur can be seen through the foliage. A moorhen is pecking around near the flipper.
Head, flipper, and tail details of the Temnodontosaurus. A second ichthyosaur is just barely visible in the background.

Ichthyosaurs were already known from some very complete and well-preserved fossils in the 1850s, so a lot of the anatomy here still holds up fairly well even 170 years later. They even have an attempt at a tail fin despite no impressions of such a structure having been discovered yet! Some details are still noticeably wrong compared to modern knowledge, though, such as the unusual amount of shrinkwrapping on the sclerotic rings of the eyes and the bones of the flippers.

An illustration comparing the Crystal Palace depiction of an ichthyosaur with a modern interpretation. The retro version has long toothy jaws, very large eyes, a seal-like body, four scaly-looking flippers, and a small eel-like fin on its tail. The modern version is a much more dolphin-like animal with smaller eyes, smooth triangular flippers, a dorsal fin, and a vertical crescent-shaped tail fin.

Three photographs showing each of the Crystal Palace plesiosaurs. They're all similar-looking seal-like animals with four flippers, long sinuous snake-like necks, and small grinning reptilian heads.

Arranged around the ichthyosaur, three different Jurassic plesiosaurs are also represented – “Plesiosaurus” macrocephalus with the especially sinuous neck on the left, Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus in the middle, and Thalassiodracon hawkinsi on the right.

They’re all depicted here as amphibious and rather seal-like, hauling out onto the shore in the same manner as the ichthyosaurs. While good efforts for the time, we now know these animals were actually fully aquatic, that they had a lot more soft tissue bulking out their bodies, and that their necks were much less flexible.

An illustration comparing the Crystal Palace depiction of an plesiosaur with a modern interpretation. The retro version has small grinning reptilian head, a long sinuous snake-like neck, a seal-like body with four flippers, and a tapering reptilian tail. The modern version has a smoother head, a less flexible neck, a chunkier body with four turtle-like flippers, and a short thick tail with a small vertical fin.

A photograph showing an access bridge behind the Crystal Palace marine reptile sculptures. It's currently pivoted to its "closed" position.

The recently-installed new pivot bridge is also visible here behind some of the marine reptiles.

A photograph of the Crystal Palace Teleosaurus statues, crocodile-like marine reptiles. They're heavily obscured by plant growth.

Positioned to the left of the other marine reptiles, this partly-obscured pair of croc-like animals are teleosaurs (Teleosaurus cadomensis), a group of Jurassic semi-aquatic marine crocodylomorphs.

A photograph of the Crystal Palace teleosaurs when not obscured by plant growth. They resemble modern gharials, with long narrow toothy jaws, armored bodies, four small legs, and long scaly tails.
A better view of the two teleosaurs by MrsEllacott (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The Crystal Palace statues have the general proportions right, with long thin gharial-like snouts and fairly small limbs. But some things like the shape of the back of the head and the pattern of armored scutes are wrong, which is odd considering that those details were already well-known in the 1850s.

An illustration comparing the Crystal Palace depiction of Teleosaurus with a modern interpretation. The retro version closely resembles a modern gharial, with a long toothy snout, an armored scaly body, fairly small legs, and a long tail. The modern version's head is wider at the back, along with a different armor arrangement, smaller forelimbs, and a more paddle-like tail.

A photograph of the Crystal Palace Megalosaurus. It's a large bulky quadrupedal reptile resembling a mix between a crocodile and a bear, with upright legs, a toothy snout, a humped back, and a dragging tail.

Finally we reach the first actual dinosaur, and one of the most iconic statues in the park: the Jurassic Megalosaurus!

Megalosaurus bucklandi was the very first non-avian dinosaur known to science, discovered in the 1820s almost twenty years before the term “dinosaur” was even coined.

At a time when only fragments of the full skeleton were known, and before any evidence of bipedalism had been found, the Crystal Palace rendition of Megalosaurus is a bulky quadrupedal reptile with a humped back and upright bear-like limbs. It’s a surprisingly progressive interpretation for the period, giving the impression of an active mammal-like predator.

This statue suffered extensive damage to its snout in 2020, which was repaired a year later with a fiberglass “prosthesis”.

An illustration comparing the Crystal Palace depiction of Megalosaurus with a modern interpretation. The retro version looks like a mix of a crocodile and a bear, with toothy reptilian jaws, a humped back, four thick upright legs, and a dragging tail. The modern version is a bipedal theropod dinosaur with a rectangular snout, three-clawed hands, muscular legs and a long tapering tail. it's depicted here with a speculative coat of feathery fuzz.

A photograph of the Crystal Palace Hylaeosaurus statue. It's a large bulky iguana-like reptile, with four bulky upright legs, spiky armor along its back, and a dragging tail. It's facing away from viewers so its head isn't visible. To the left one of the Iguanodon statues can be seen as if peeking into frame.

Reaching the Cretaceous period now, we find Hylaeosaurus (and one of the upcoming Iguanodon peeking in from the side).

Hylaeosaurus armatus was the first known ankylosaur, although much like the other dinosaurs here its life appearance was very poorly understood in the early days of paleontology. Considering how weird ankylosaurs would later turn out to be, the Crystal Palace depiction is a pretty good guess, showing a large heavy iguana-like quadruped with hoof-like claws and armored spiky scaly skin.

It’s positioned facing away from viewers, so its face isn’t very visible – but due to the head needing to be replaced with a fiberglass replica some years ago, the original can now be seen (and touched!) up close near the start of the trail.

A photograph of the Crystal Palace Hylaeosaurus' original head, now at the start of the walking trail. It's a boxy, scaly, lizard-like design with clusters of short spikes above and behind its eyes.
An illustration comparing the Crystal Palace depiction of Hylaeosaurus with a modern interpretation. The retro version looks like a large iguana-like lizard with a boxy head, four thick upright legs, and long spines along its back. The modern version is an ankylosaur dinosaur with a beaked snout, spiky armor along its back and sides, four relatively short legs, and a long tapering tail.

A photograph of part of a sign reading "pterodactyle".

Two pterosaurs (or “pterodactyles” according to the park signs) were also supposed to be just beyond the Hylaeosaurus, but plant growth had completely blocked any view of them.

Although these two statues are supposed to represent a Cretaceous species now known as Cimoliopterus cuvieri, they were probably actually modeled based on the much better known Jurassic-aged Pterodactylus antiquus.

A second set of pterosaur sculptures once stood near the teleosaurs, also based on Pterodactylus but supposed to represent a Jurassic species now known as Dolicorhamphus bucklandii. These statues went missing in the 1930s, and were eventually replaced with new fiberglass replicas in the early 2000s… only to be destroyed by vandalism just a few years later.

(The surviving pair near the Hylaeosaurus are apparently in a bit of disrepair these days, too, with the right one currently missing most of its jaws.)

The Crystal Palace pterosaurs weren’t especially accurate even for the time, with heads much too small, swan-like necks, and bird-like wings that don’t attach the membranes to the hindlimbs. Hair-like fuzz had been observed in pterosaur fossils in the 1830s, but these depictions are covered in large overlapping diamond-shaped scales due to Richard Owen‘s opinion that they should be scaly because they were reptiles.

But some details still hold up – the individual with folded wings is in a quadrupedal pose quite similar to modern interpretations, and the bird-like features give an overall impression of something more active and alert than the later barely-able-to-fly sluggish reptilian pterosaur depictions that would become common by the mid-20th century.

An illustration comparing the Crystal Palace depiction of pterosaurs with a modern interpretation. The retro version has a small head with long toothy jaws, a long swan-like neck, folded membranous wings, and skin covered in large overlapping snake-like scales. The modern version has a larger head with a crest, a thicker less curved neck, more elastic and tightly-folded wing membranes, and a coat of fur-like fuzz over its body.

(Much like the statues themselves, the “modern” reconstruction above is based on Pterodactylus rather than Cimoliopterus)

A photograph of the two Crystal Palace Iguanodon, large bulky quadrupedal reptiles with beaked snouts, nose horns, four thick upright legs, scaly skin, and dragging tails. One is standing up and the other is reclining with one paw raised. They're both mostly obscured by vegetation.

The last actual dinosaurs on this dinosaur trail are the two Cretaceous Iguanodon sculptures. At the time of my visit they weren’t easy to make out behind the overgrown trees, and only the back end of the standing individual was clearly visible.

A photograph of the standing Iguanodon from a different angle, showing its mostly-visible backside.

Named only a year after Megalosaurus, Iguanodon was the second dinosaur ever discovered, and early reconstructions depicted it as a giant iguana-like lizard.

The Crystal Palace statues depict large bulky animals, one in an upright mammal-like stance and another reclining with one hand raised up. (This hand is usually resting on a cycad trunk, but that element appeared to be either missing or fallen over when I was there.)

Famously a New Year’s dinner party was held in the body of the standing Iguanodon during its construction, although the accounts of how many people could actually fit inside it at once are probably slightly exaggerated.

A clearer photograph of the two Crystal Palace Iguanodon, large bulky quadrupedal reptiles with beaked snouts, nose horns, four thick upright legs, scaly skin, and dragging tails. One is standing up and the other is reclining with one paw raised to rest on a cycad trunk.
A clearer view by Jim Linwood (CC BY 2.0)

Considering that the skull of Iguanodon wasn’t actually known at the time of these sculpture’s creation, the head shape with a beak at the front of the jaws is actually an excellent guess. The only major issue was the nose horn, which was an understandable mistake when something as strange as a giant thumb spike had never been seen in any known animal before.

An illustration comparing the Crystal Palace depiction of Iguanodon with a modern interpretation. The retro version is a large bulky quadrupedal reptile, with a beaked snout, a horn on its nose, four thick upright legs, scaly skin, and a dragging tail. The modern version is an ornithopod dinosaur with a beaked snout, horse-like neck, large thumb spikes on its hands, chunky bird-like hind legs, and a thick tail.

(The fossils the Crystal Palace statues are based on are actually now classified as Mantellisaurus atherfieldensis, but the “modern” reconstruction above depicts the chunkier Iguanodon bernissartensis.)

I also wasn’t able to spot the Cretaceous mosasaur on the other side of the island due to heavy foliage obscuring the view.

Depicting Mosasaurus hoffmannii, this model consists of only the front half of the animal lurking at the water’s edge. It’s unclear whether this partial reconstruction is due to uncertainty about the full appearance, or just a result of money and time running out during its creation.

The head is boxier than modern depictions, and the scales are too large, but the monitor-lizard like features and paddle-shaped flippers are still pretty close to our current understanding of these marine reptiles. It even apparently has the correct palatal teeth!

An illustration comparing the Crystal Palace depiction of Mosasaurus with a modern interpretation. The retro version is an amphibious monitor-lizard-like animal with a boxy head, large paddle-like flippers, a thick body and a long lizard-like tail. The modern version is a fully aquatic reptile with a more triangular head, a streamlined dolphin-like body, four paddle-like flippers, and a long tail with a crescent-shaped fin.

Next time: the final Cenozoic section!

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