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.